With a flourish reminiscent of 70s prog rockers Yes, Janelle Monáe opened her Toronto concert last night with a recording of Richard Strauss’ Also Spracht Zarathustra (the opening music from Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey). A white-suited bow-tied attendant straight out of 1940s film noir then took to the stage and urged the crowd to shout out their own names before asking them to cry out for Monáe, who was then wheeled onto the stage on a hand truck in a manner reminiscent of the Godfather of Soul, James Brown.
Strauss gave way to Suite IV Electric Overture, an introduction to Monáe’s android persona sung by her background singers against a sonic tapestry that was equal parts 1960s spy movie theme and 50’s Biblical epic. It felt like a bit of a time warp. The past and the present were colliding with a retro future yet to come.
After working the crowd into a frenzy with this overture, the Atlanta-based singer broke into the slow burning groove of Givin Em What They Love from her 2013 album, The Electric Lady.
Over the course of an hour, Monáe unleashed a torrent of energy in a performance that owed more to David Bowie than to Beyoncé. The gender-bending genre-blending chanteuse wore her influences on her sleeve, not only in her feigned fainting and moonwalking, but also in her performances of I Got You (I Feel Good) and the Jackson 5’s I Want You Back, which captured the spirit of the originals with a vibe that was distinctly hers.
Her stagecraft was impressive. Her diminutive form stalked the stage with the confidence and presence of performers like Mick Jagger and Freddie Mercury as she led the crowd into enthusiastic sing-alongs.
Introducing Cold War, Monáe told the crowd she had written the song to counter her own feelings of helplessness as a woman of colour. She dedicated it to Mike Brown, on the first anniversary of his death at the hands of police in Ferguson Missouri, and to Sandra Bland. She urged the crowd to jump, so as to be heard in the United States. She then delivered a searing rendition of this cri-de-coeur about the inner struggles of an individual within an oppressive social hierarchy.
The impassioned performance went from highlight to highlight.
Guitarist Kendrall Parker who was the perfect foil for the chanteuse, not only provided searing leads and crisp rhythm but his extended intro to Prime Time gave the crowd a moment to catch its collective breath during one of the show’s less frenzied moments.
During Tight Rope, the singer fell to her knees and screamed that she was only five feet tall but always walking one. Such histrionics would have felt gauche in the hands of a lesser performer, but Monáe has a knack for spectacle and even when she’s gone over the top (and then some) her emotions feel real.
As she wound her way to the finish, Monáe jumped off stage for a bit of crowdsurfing and a run along the security barrier that separated her from her audience. It was a display of bravado one rarely sees from a female performer, and certainly not from an R&B singer.
Monáe is an alchemist. She brings together disparate musical styles and thematic elements under the umbrella of pop. She is not afraid to flirt with self-indulgence or braggadocio. She proved that last night with a show that was theatrical, fun and uplifting.
Her stage persona is larger than life and like Bowie, she inhabits a character when performing. Halfway between Ziggy Stardust and the Thin White Duke, her onstage alter-ego is the android Cindy Mayweather, a creation inspired by the robot Maria in Fritz Lang’s silent sci-fi classic Metropolis. You don’t have to know this to enjoy her shows and you may even find it paradoxical that an android can be so emotional, but the singer maintains that the metaphor is an expression of the experience of an outsider, be it a woman, a person of colour, a queer, or anybody else who is otherwise marginalized and excluded.
Her Nathan Philips Square performance, which was part of the Panamania series of events that are running in parallel with the 2015 Pan Am and ParaPan Am Games, was a delight and a revelation. It was one of the concert highlights in a year that has brought Prince to the city for a pair of surprise shows, which is saying a lot.
In a word, last night’s performance by Janelle Monáe was astonishing.