1:35 AM EDT, October 22, 2013
“Yeah, I'll reprogram your mind, come on, get in, my spaceship leaves at 10,” Janelle Monae sang Monday at the Vic Theatre. She was off by about an hour – her concert actually ended at 10:56 p.m.
By the time every one exited the building, all traces of the mothership had vanished. Instead, a more mundane travel option awaited: her tour bus. No matter. Monae had taken a capacity crowd for a heck of a ride.
In her nearly two hours on stage, the singer played the android messiah Cindi Mayweather, with a Little Richard pompadour and dance moves culled from Michael Jackson, James Brown, Cab Calloway, Fred Astaire and a few old “Soul Train” tapes. She entered in a straitjacket, was jolted back to life after suffering a “heart attack” and dove into the audience to make her escape from a two-tone stage that matched her black-and-white outfits. All the while she shook and shimmied out of the boxes imposed on her by an uncomprehending planet (a k a, Earth) as represented by two menacing, lab-coated wardens.
The visuals added another layer to the ambitious music drawn from her 2007 EP, “Metropolis,” and two albums, “The ArchAndroid” (2010) and the recent “Electric Lady,” which create a loose science-fiction narrative drawing on everything from cabaret to new wave. Though comparisons have been drawn to David Bowie, Monae works squarely within a long-standing African-American tradition: the futuristic liberator-visionary played by everyone from Sun Ra and George Clinton to fellow Atlanta artists OutKast.
For all its cosmic trappings, Monae’s championing of the “other” in the guise of an outer-space android isn’t as outlandish as it seems. People of color, women, gays, the poor – Monae speaks for the marginalized in way that reflects her own hardscrabble upbringing in Kansas City. Wallowing isn’t allowed. Deep, blue ballads are at a minimum. Instead, Monae and her nine-piece band aimed to stomp and strut like liberators. Their revolution is less about finger-pointing than a play on Funkadelic’s command to “Free your mind and your (butt) will follow.”
The message was delivered most emphatically by the music, which crammed a half-dozen ideas and seemingly just as many genres into many of the 15 songs. “Dance Apocalyptic” – in many ways the night’s theme song – blended girl-group vocals with a tribal beat and peppered it with horns, while Monae hot-footed on the drum riser and then clutched the microphone stand and writhed as if she were being electrocuted. On “Sincerely, Jane,” she channeled Shirley Bassey in full on “Goldfinger” roar while moonwalking in black boots. She brought a hymn-like beauty to the call and response of “PrimeTime,” a rare respite from the frenzied dancing, before diving into Prince’s “Let’s Go Crazy” and imbuing the frantic “Come Alive (War of the Roses)” with sanctified fervor.
The show could’ve used a little more breathing room, a surer sense of pacing. Monae's one attempt at building some mood -- a long, hushed interlude in near darkness as the show wound down -- overstayed its welcome. When Monae went full-on, she was difficult to deny. As her pompadour came undone, she threw herself on the stage, and then into the audience. “When everything is wrong, I dance inside your mind,” she declared, as if swimming atop the fans’ hands wasn’t enough. Now she wanted to invade their dreams, too.
Janelle Monae set list Monday at the Vic Theatre:
1 Suite IV Electric Overture
2 Givin’ Em What They Love
3 Dance Apocalyptic
4 Sincerely, Jane.
6 Electric Lady
8 Ghetto Woman
9 I Want You Back (Jackson 5 cover)
10 Cold War
13 Let’s Go Crazy (Prince cover)
14 Come Alive (The War of the Roses)
15 What an Experience
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