Janelle Monáe entered the stage restrained by a straitjacket, accompanied by attendants in lab coats. It was a sign of things to come.
Before she left almost two hours later, Monáe had ignited several outbursts of manic insanity, none more feverish than what erupted during “Come Alive,” an encore that exceeded 35 minutes.
Monáe was in town Friday night for a show at the Uptown Theater, her first major headlining show in her hometown. She drew a crowd of about 1,800, many of them members of her immediate family and close friends from Kansas City, Kan., where she was born and raised.
She gave everyone a night to remember: a relentless barrage of dance, music, rhythms, grooves and attitude, filling a large room with a potent mix of energy, love and admiration for the petite lady who inflamed it all.
She opened with “Give ’Em What They Love,” a track off her latest album, “The Electric Lady,” that features Prince on the recorded version. But Monáe didn’t need him to rouse some rabble on the floor this evening. Before her set started, one of her attendants, who also served as her emcee, told the crowd: “You will dance or die this evening.” Well, not everyone danced and no one died, but there were plenty of people in motion and in various states of glee all over the theater, all night.
The stage setup was relatively primitive: some spotlights and a couple of light stacks that changed color, but no videos or other visual stimulants. Nearly everything was cast in white, including Monáe, except for her black bow-tie, suspenders and black boots, and her engaging backup singers/dancers, who wore dresses of black-and-white candy stripes.
But there was plenty to watch; it was hard to look away. The pacing of this show was electric, and the source of all that energy was the headliner, who showed off an impressive array of talents and skills, from her incredible voice to her theatrical spirit to her slick dance skills to her 200,000-kilowatt personality, which is as warm and funny and charming as it seems completely genuine. She will turn 28 in a few weeks, but as a performer, she has the polish and panache of someone with twice her experience.
The sound could have been better. During, “Victory,” she had to sing through several peals of feedback, and the rest of the show was marred by periods of muddy sound, especially when the keyboards and horns executed bright and heavy flourishes. A few times, her voice disappeared in the mix.
It’s hard to pick out highlights from a show that suffered virtually no lulls or lags, but “Ghetto Woman” was one. So was her cover of “I Want You Back” and then the one-two punch of “Cold War” and “Tight Rope.” The cover of Prince’s “Let’s Go Crazy” also started a ruckus.
After that, she and her band (horns, keys, drums, percussion, bass) showed some remarkable patience and endurance during the 35-plus-minute version of “Come Alive (War of the Roses).” During that one, Monáe choreographed a sing-along as she coaxed the crowd on the floor to drop to its knees (a la “Shout” in “Animal House”). It all went on for a long time, too long, you could rightfully argue. But when she finally brought it to a climax — drawing the band and the crowd into a full-throttle eruption of song and dance — it all felt worth while.
But she wasn’t done. As the band sustained the groove, Monáe crowd-surfed, on her stomach — at times, moving her arms as if swimming (some endearing facial expressions included) — from the foot of the stage to the soundboard and back to the stage. All the while she was treated and greeted like royalty.
She could have let the crowd go home right after that, in a slightly deranged state, but instead she gave them another song, an uplifting ballad called “What An Experience.” Yes, this show was an experience, but it was more like an adventure, an excursion led by a talented, charismatic dynamo who knows how to exorcise a crowd’s inhibitions and take it to the brink of some harmless, therapeutic insanity.