Monday, November 26, 2007

Onstage vixen connects with crowd

Pardon the cliché, but seriously, M.I.A. tore it up Friday night at the Vic Theatre. Going into the show, I was a bit skeptical about how well M.I.A. could connect with the audience through her new material. On her first tour, the whole “one DJ + one MC + one backup singer” approach worked really well because the music on her first album sounded as if that was all it consisted of. But on Kala, M.I.A.'s second and newest record, she utilizes a lot of African drumming, guest appearances and so on -- basically taking one step away from the DJ-oriented context of her previous work. With this said, I was expecting some live tribal drumming, or maybe even a drum circle. But even using the same approach as before, M.I.A. managed to connect with the crowd, almost literally pulling them onstage with her and making everyone feel like they were in the front row. We were all thankful for this, because over the past year or so, it’s been a fear throughout her fan base that she wouldn’t be touring the U.S. again, thanks to issues acquiring a Visa. It’s all panned out for the best, though, and with the addition of a stage-wide projection screen and another backup dancer/singer adding to the stimulating effect of her show, M.I.A. seems poised to dominate the U.S. one city at a time.

M.I.A. kicked off her set of club bangers with the opening track of Kala, “Bamboo Banga,” which got the crowd warmed up for the gun toting and bass thumpin' “World Town.” With this song, M.I.A. created a high neither she, nor the crowd, would come down from. Her set was well balanced, with material from both of her albums; neither one favored over the other. The crowd was getting more and more hyped with every song, and who could blame them, especially when M.I.A. spent a large portion of the show actually IN the crowd. When she wasn’t in the crowd, she was busy pulling people from the crowd to dance onstage with her. If anyone knows how to connect with an audience, M.I.A. surely does. After closing out her set with one of the biggest underground hits of 2005, “Galang,” the crowd only wanted more.

The next 15 minutes were a nonstop torrent of chanting, cheering and clapping -- all of which culminated in the opening beat for “Hussel,” a sure-fire highlight of Kala. After this, things calmed down a bit for the newest single from Kala, “Paper Planes.” The on-screen visuals for this song were spectacular, featuring choppy sequences of M.I.A. with paper planes flying across the screen. She ended the night perfectly, with the sort of “U.S. bonus track” on her first album, “U.R.A.Q.T.” This song had the crowd moving and exploding with excitement in the same way “XR2” did toward the beginning of the set.

Of all the times I’ve seen M.I.A. live, this had to be the best show yet. I’ve seen her open for LCD Soundsystem and I’ve caught her performing in a sweaty dive with no A/C in the middle of a muggy Houston summer, and I have to say that she’s come a long way. One thing’s for sure, no matter what the format of her show may be, she’ll always be a crowd pleaser – and if you see her, you will feel like you’re onstage with her. Who knows? You might even end up there with her. -Neil Miller, Jr.