Janelle Monae and the Wondaland Crew
August 17th, 2015
Concord Music Hall, Chicago, IL
There are very few musicians that are the total package quite like Janelle Monae. The Kansas-City born entertainer fuses funk, R&B, psychedelic rock, hip hop, and a dose of theater to make her own blend of timeless pop. On stage, she channels James Brown and Michael Jackson, truly standing as one of the best performers currently on the planet. Monae has even become a White House favorite, playing for the President and his family more than 15 times. On record, she’s released three ambitious and varied concept records about her as an arch-android hero named Cindi Mayweather, exploring not only every corner of the pop spectrum but also themes of discrimination, tolerance, and everything in-between. Monae has even become an important cultural voice, speaking out against gang violence, police brutality, and discrimination of all kinds. Monae is now spreading her influence to a group of artists at her Wondaland label, a diverse group of artistic outcasts making urgent, interesting, and entertaining pop music. This collection of artists put out the Eephus EP, and are putting on a free tour thanks to Toyota. After a near two hour wait to get in, I caught them as they rolled through Chicago last week, and like Monae herself, it was both entertaining and significant.
Upon entering the venue, we received “The Eephus Commandments”, ten instructions from the artists to having a good time. This includes everything from commandment #1: “The Eephus is a state of being; it is an individual, a collective, an idea, an action, an equal and opposite reaction” to commandment #10: “Please be aware that children conceived during the show or within 48 hours thereafter may be born with an excessive desire to eat carrots and play baseball as a one-person team.” These sort of weird commandments well-capture the strangeness of these artists and also their desire to make each and every show an experience: certainly something everyone longs for when they attend a concert.
The Wondaland crew touring together consists of rascal rockers Deep Cotton, soul crooner and guitarist Roman GianArthur, gentle folk duo St. Beauty, the dapper rapper Jidenna, and of course the Electric Lady herself, Janelle Monae. Each artist in one way or another is a Prince disciple, black art school kids who are interested in one facet or another of the pop icon. Purple lighting illuminated the stage for much of the night, and in Purple Rain fashion, the group kicked the show off with “Let’s Go Crazy” and plenty of confetti. The show was structured in a way that each artist would take their turn doing a song or two of their own – sometimes partnering with other members from Wondaland – and were backed by Janelle Monae’s dynamite house band, led by the always-entertaining lead guitar player Kellindo Parker. I was surprised how well this worked, as each artist slipped in and off stage smoothly. While there was the occasional letdown from going from say Janelle Monae blowing the roof off performing “Q.U.E.E.N.” and “Electric Lady” to St. Beauty doing their more downbeat love songs, but for the most part, no artist overstayed their welcome.
While every musician in the Wondaland crew is talented in their own right, Jidenna is the one artist outside Monae with true star power. Jidenna, born in a small town in Wisconsin, is one of the more handsome performers around and owns his look completely. With a full head of ginger, hair, he wears a throwback three-piece suit, including a pocket watch and cane to complete the effect. Jidenna has thrown his way onto the radio this summer, being featured on a guest rap verse on Janelle Monae’s “Yoga” and his own single and manifesto, “Classic Man.” Jidenna dominated both those songs and two others live, with the help of his side man who also sported a three-piece suit and used his handkerchief as a dancing prop. The two combined for a humorous yet authoritative hip hop set.
Janelle Monae only played four of her own songs, but she sure went for the heavy hitters: “Q.U.E.E.N.”, “Electric Lady”, “Tightrope”, and her big summer single “Yoga.” Each Monae performances is like a snowflake, with her busting out new moves and new call-and-responses. While she has now been on the scene for eight years, her energy level certainly hasn’t dropped a bit.
While protest over police brutality is rampant over social media and in a number of hot-button cities, there hasn’t been a song for protesters to rally around. That’s no longer the case with the Wondaland gangs’ “Hell You Talmbout”, a powerful protest song that makes known the names of those that have been killed unjustly in a primal shout. Seeing the Wondaland crew cry out each name and repeat their rally cry is as powerful as it comes. Here’s to hoping “Hell You Talmbout” catches on as the theme for the movement against police brutality, and artists as unique and entertaining as the Wondaland crew keep getting a platform.