What happens when a future Austin City Limits Festival headliner and featured performer at this year’s festival tapes an Austin City Limits television episode? In the case of Atlanta’s Janelle Monae, it signals the elevation of a talented and underrated performer (she should have had ACL Fest headliner status) from successful status to full-blown superstar. The singer’s performance at ACL Live at the Moody theater Monday, October 8 was nothing short of masterful. It was as if Monae embodied the soul of her mentor Prince, the dance moves of Michael Jackson, the swagger of Bowie and the moxie of Sheila E all rolled into the powerhouse of a performer. The episode will rank as one of the 45-year-old show’s best and that’s saying a lot considering the caliber of performers who have graced the studio stage over the years.
The singer, songwriter, actor, performer, dancer and all-around badass has been impressing fans and listeners since her debut 2007 EP Metropolis: Suite 1 (The Chase). Two years later Monae performed at Austin’s Fun Fun Fun Fest at Waterloo Park. It was jarring how good a talent she was then.
It was no surprise then when Monae electrified the ACL TV audience with a 70-minute set that displayed the polymath’s genre-busting ability. The production was about the same as the festival version, which show producer Terry Lickona mentioned in his extended introduction (he was asked to stall for time), remarking the rehearsal was like no other he’d watched in all the years of the show’s existence.
Monae’s band took the stage to “Also Sprach Zarathustra,” the same dramatic music you’ve heard in Stanley Kubrick’s film, 2001: A Space Odyssey. The stage was replete with a monochrome set design that featured a white pyramid bracketed by white stage risers for the band set the stage for the performer to appear behind a glittery microphone and stand to feature the title track to Dirty Computer, the singer’s latest release. The night’s performance replicated the four-act Dirty Computer Tour complete with multiple costume changes, segues and choreographed dance routines with Monae bracketed by four talented dancers.
The singer took up a guitar for “Screwed”, which has a wicked bass line reflecting the song’s funky pop-oriented tone that contrasts with the subject matter which takes up the notion of sex as power. The tune elevated an already hyped crowd to further heights.
Monae’s version of “Django Jane” was an aggressive rap song that spoke to the aliens and weirdos who flock to the sexually ambiguous singer’s shows. A few audience members told us they wept during the song following the performance. Monae included the audience in the show frequently, inviting ladies in the crowd to participate in a call and response portion of “The Electric Lady,” injecting even more energy into an ecstatic room of music fans. Later she invited fans on stage.
A set highlight was Monae’s homage to Michael Jackson with “Make Me Feel” that saw the singer displaying impressive dance moves and spins evocative of the gloved-one. The moment felt special in a night filled with similar moments. The song also felt like a raucous Prince tune with the musicians at the front of the stage with an exuberant Monae.
Set closer, “I Got the Juice” brought the show home as fans were invited on stage to display their “juice” with Monae. The final guest happened to be local singer Nakia, who often attends the tapings. The experienced performer wowed the audience with slick dance moves and infectious enthusiasm to boot. The man really does love music. Friends reported seeing the former “The Voice” contestant weeping during the show.
The band returned for a two-song closer that included debut album hit “Tightrope” followed by “Come Alive” as the Grammy-nominated artist sashayed across the stage and onto the floor and through the audience, capping a stellar taping. The show will air November 17 on PBS. Check your local listings for showtimes and schedules.
Photos by Scott Newton used courtesy of ACL TV