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Music Blog

Concert review: Janelle Monae in Orem

by Dan Nailen
- Posted // 2011-05-31 - OREM—Based on her gig opening for Of Montreal in Salt Lake City last fall, expectations for Janelle Monae’s return to Utah were running high Monday night. And unlike far too many young touring acts, she met them and then some.

The 25-year-old performer took full advantage of the larger environs of Orem's UCCU Center, filling the stage with 15 musicians and dancers, and filling the three large video screens with stunning, often-trippy imagery. Her In The Venue show last year was impressive because of the kind of multi-media show she was able to pull off in a club environment. Monday’s show proved that Monae is the kind of artist who can take full advantage of larger rooms, given the opportunity.

Monae took the stage between opener Mayer Hawthorne and headliner Bruno Mars, appearing after a James Bond-style film of “opening credits” overhead introduced her and her ArchOrchestra: a four-person string section, two dancers, two singers, two horn players and two drummers, along with men on keyboards, bass and guitar. Monae was decked out in her familiar tuxedo and soaring beehive, and her band was all dressed in black-and-white, as well. The attire made the occasional bursts on color, via lighting and images on the video screens, all the more dramatic when they came.

At first, Monae and Co. struggled with the basketball arena’s sound through the first couple songs, “Dance or Die” and “Faster,” but by the time they reached the delicious grooves of “Locked Inside,” they had figured out the sonics of the room. “Locked Inside” is a fine example of the timelessness of Monae’s appeal; the song sounds like it could have been an R&B hit in the '60s or '70s, and it’s just as potent a tune in 2011.

After a brief instrumental interlude that had her band playing a bit of “The Star-Spangled Banner” while an American flag appeared on the video screens, Monae settled down for a simple guitar-and-voice version of “Smile,” a song originally written by Charlie Chaplin in the '30s and adapted with lyrics for Nat King Cole in the '50s. The stunning vocal work on “Smile” hushed the 5,000 or so on hand into silence, and showed that Monae is far more than simply a multi-media artist or fashionable pop star. The woman has serious vocal chops and could sing any style of music she likes.

Thankfully, her oddball blend of funk, rap, soul and R&B allows her to stretch in myriad directions. A cover of the Jackson 5’s “I Want You Back” was dead-on, while her trippy take on “Mushrooms & Roses” had a lot of the Bruno Mars fans on hand scratching their heads while Monae painted a quick picture while she sang and psychedelic imagery filled the screens overhead.

Monae’s set ended in a burst of singalong choruses and audience participation, from the aggressive “Cold War” to the killer bounce of “Tightrope” to the show-closing “Come Alive,” which had Monae jumping off stage into the crowd and making a run to the back of the arena before rejoining her band for a mini-mosh pit on stage.

A giant arena is obviously not ideal for any kind of concert, but Monae made it work. And more importantly, the show was different enough from her appearance last year to indicate this young visionary has plenty of new tricks up her oh-so-stylish sleeve.

  • Currently 3.5/5 Stars.
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