Live: Janelle Monáe, Cheerfully Confounding At Highline Ballroom
Thursday, April 8
Bad Sign #1: We are greeted in the Highline Ballroom atrium by a cardboard cutout of Janelle, sci-fi r&b heroine extraordinaire, holding a sign informing us that we must listen to The Archandroid (that's her upcoming album) from beginning to end to appreciate it fully, and thus we won't be allowed in if we show up after the "emotion picture" (as she prefers to refer to it) has begun. Like, some Broadway-type shit. I am curious to see if they actually bar paying customers at the door if they're late, but I'd rather not risk becoming one myself.
Bad Sign #2: "Emotion picture."
Bad Sign #3: Our opening act, fledgling rapper Donnis, takes the stage to an xx song and has a trumpet player. Before doing what he calls his "sexy song," he admits that "it's hard to be sexy." Indeed.
Bad Sign #4: Janelle and her backing band take the stage in druid-style cloaks and hoods, an unavoidable side effect of touring with Of Montreal. A gentleman with a top hat does an intro of sorts: "By now you should've already Tweeted." The screen behind them introduces The Archandroid, with full credits. The stage floor is caked in baby powder.
Encouraging Sign #1: Same raucous, incongruous backing band as though wild-ass 2009 shows that turned me into such a fanboy. They settle into a concussive P-Funk dirge as Janelle doffs her hood and speed-raps, doing a manic continual jittery tap-dance that never really stops. She's also a world-class Moonwalker.
Bad Sign #5/Encouraging Sign #2: Mostly songs from The Archandroid tonight, and thus unfamiliar, leaping genres -- deranged cabaret, classic soul, gypsy jazz (sort of), thrashing rock -- with admirable but disorienting aplomb. This record might be awesome, or it might not. But it will definitely not be boring.
Encouraging Sign #3: "Cold War" we know, a driving rock anthem in the rousing Rocky-theme vein, Janelle wailing operatically, her guitar player reeling off the first of many deranged cock-rock solos, though much of the rest of the time I suspect he doesn't suspect he might not actually be plugged in.
Encouraging Sign #4: Then they do "Tightrope." I love "Tightrope."
Bad Sign #6: What makes this an "emotion picture" I guess is goofy onscreen visuals and arbitrary acts/intermissions, meaning she'll just leave the stage arbitrarily. Everyone is confused.
Bad Sign #7: Initially I'm convinced that her big power ballad is actually a cover of Sufjan Stevens' "Jacksonville."
Encouraging Sign #5: It is not.
Generally Confusing Sign #1,498: We conclude with a few familiar tunes from the Metropolis EP, then she leaves the stage seemingly for good, Jimi Hendrix blaring over the PA, etc., but everyone just stands around, and eventually she comes out with a whole bunch of people, she thanks us profusely, they do a brief stomp-clap gospel-ish a capella number, jam out on seemingly randomly chosen instruments for a few minutes, and then leave the stage again, this time for good. Oh and somewhere before all that we were showered with balloons.
Still pulling for you, Janelle. One day this will all make sense.