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Monae hits her marks, blows minds

Janelle Monae concert photo

Janelle Monae at the Centre in Vancouver for Performing Arts with the TD Vancouver International Jazz Festival June 29 2012. Robyn Hanson photo

Review and photos–Janelle Monáe at the TD Vancouver International Jazz Festival June 29 2012

– text by Shawn Conner/photos by Robyn Hanson

Walking into the Centre in Vancouver for Performing Arts, I had very few expectations. Janelle Monáe wears a tux and her hair in a modified quiff, was about all I knew.

A few hours later, I’d been schooled–but I’m still not quite sure what I saw.

The show was a bundle of entertainment, no doubt; the Kansas City-born singer at times had up to 15 people onstage with her, including backup singers and a two-man horn section. Monáe was tireless and showed off her dancing skills as well as her tremendous voice on this, the last show of her Canadian tour.

The set alternated with everything-but-the-kitchen-sink originals like “Tightrope” and “Cold War” off the science-fiction fan’s 2010 album The ArchAndroid, and covers. “Smile” showcased Monáe’s huge voice and her electric guitarist’s licks; the Jackson Five‘s “I Want You Back” got bums out of seats and swaying in the aisles.

Nothing, however, could quite touch the showstopping cover of Prince‘s “Take Me With U”, which came midway through the show. After that, all I wanted was to hear Monáe and her crack band do the whole Purple Rain record.

Oh, one other thing I’d heard about the singer; that she likes to paint during her shows. This Monáe did, splashing orange on a canvas and adding colour and lines to what eventually took the shape of a woman’s back and bottom, and all the while she continued to sing. At the end of the concert, she gave the painting – which now said “God is love” – away to an audience member celebrating a birthday. Not a bad gift.

But for all its tight performances and showbiz touches – the “Ten Droid Commandments” flyer handed out as we entered the auditorium, the diva-like black-cape-and-cowl entrance, her mid-show softshoe and her end-of-set running-into-the-audience – the evening still had a slapdash, scattered energy that prevented it from ever coalescing into a completely satisfying whole. Much like the performer herself, it was a mess of contradictions – weird and Vegas-y, stiff and loose all at the same time.

One thing is certain, though – there’s nothing else out there quite like it, or like Janelle Monáe.

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