Ever since his song “Cold Little Heart” got picked as the theme to the HBO TV series “Big Little Lies” in 2017, Michael Kiwanuka’s already ascendant career has enjoyed a nice little boost — one strong enough to carry him to a sold-out show Monday night at the Palace Theatre in St. Paul.
Fans who came out mainly to hear that lightly swaying, soulfully mystical TV hit, though, may have felt the lies were on them.
Over the course of his 1¾-hour performance, Kiwanuka showed just how stylistically varied, lushly layered, deeply personal and at times downright trippy his music really is. The songs off his latest and most acclaimed record yet, simply titled “Kiwanuka,” especially made the 32-year-old British folk-rocker’s set seem like a wilder affair this time around.
There were parts of Monday’s show that actually resembled a wigged-out Pink Floyd concert, a funky Afrobeat excursion or one of the weirder Isaac Hayes albums more than the yoga-studio-ready moody vibes given off by that one hit song.
Through it all, Kiwanuka balanced out his many sides. His smooth but thick voice bellowed deeply enough that his often alienated and/or self-questioning lyrics never sounded whiny or wimpy. His more darkly toned, desperate-sounding soul tunes such as “Rolling” always maintained enough melody and sweetness to avoid ever feeling drab or depressed. And his psychedelic stuff never got too jammy or felt half-baked.
After opening with the slow and hazy new epic “Piano Joint (This Kind of Love),” Kiwanuka and his band — an instrumental quartet plus two women backup singers — rolled straight into some of the night’s most grooving tunes, including “One More Night” and the new album’s Hendrix-heady opening track, “You Ain’t the Problem.” That early blast of funk peaked with the hand-clap-fueled “Black Man in a White World,” which Kiwanuka turned into an extended, uninhibited free-for-all like something a band might play in his parents’ homeland of Uganda.
Things got muddier yet more powerful as the grooves slowed down for “Rule the World” and “Hero.” The former found backup singer Emily Holligan launching into a hair-raising solo reminiscent of the “Dark Side of the Moon” classic cut “Great Gig in the Sky.” The latter sounded downright militant after Kiwanuka dedicated it to slain Chicago activist Fred Hampton for the start of Black History Month in America — a different month than in England, he noted with a grin, as if he were cheating for a good cause.
Looking workman-like in a worn jean jacket, the Muswell Hill-raised London singer thanked the crowd often and actually tried to appear excited about playing St. Paul instead of Minneapolis, site of all his prior local shows.
“It’s my first time over here, so it feels special to me,” he said; which may have been his own little lie but underlined his nice-guy demeanor.
After ending the regular set with an especially cloudy and zoned-out “Solid Ground,” Kiwanuka repaid the crowd’s attentiveness with a couple of fan faves in the encore, starting with an especially light “Home Again.” Then came “Cold Little Heart,” which he delivered slower and even icier than on record (or TV). By then, though, that little bit of musical variation came as no surprise.