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Miguel’s vibes are sexual, political, anti-corporate, essential

 By Michelle Wheeler

March 29, 2018

There are, of course, many important details for an artist to consider when putting together a live show. What does the stage look like? Will there be choreography? How many wardrobe changes are too many? But I’d argue the most important is deciding what goes where in the setlist.

With an established artist like Miguel, who performed the Fillmore in Charlotte on Wednesday night to a sold-out crowd, there’s the expectation that he’ll play the songs everyone loves from his back catalog, as well as cuts from his latest release, War & Leisure.

Photo: Jade Hoyle for CLTure

Miguel is a sexy guy who makes sexy music, and if he wanted to set a sexy tone with his opening song, he’d have plenty of options to choose from. Instead, the show started with the music video for “Now,” a politically-motivated song that speaks to the plight of immigrants and calls listeners to address issues of justice and freedom before it’s too late. The son of Mexican American and African-American parents, Miguel used the video to remind his audience that many people who look like him and who have a similar heritage aren’t getting the opportunity to chase their own dreams in the same way. “Now” ends with a hopeful refrain of “We are the look of freedom, we are the sound of freedom,” and it was that theme that set the tone for the rest of the night.

After that intro, Miguel burst onto the stage with an energy that belied his small stature. It’s not for nothing that his music and performances often draw comparisons to Prince. From the amount of eye contact he maintains with the audience to the wild abandon in his dancing, every moment of the Miguel live experience is taut with a super-charged energy that feels sexual, political, authentic, and essential.

Photo: Jade Hoyle for CLTure

The Fillmore is a mid-size venue that keeps the performer in fairly close proximity to the audience. At capacity, it holds about 2000 people, but the energy rolling off the stage once the show kicked into high gear could easily have captivated an audience several times that size. As a fan of Miguel, I’d love to see him level up to arenas and amphitheaters, but his particular brand of music – which has always been, shall we say, intimate – deserves a space where an intimate energy can be cultivated, and that’s something arenas and amphitheaters don’t always allow for.

The multi-level set Miguel is using on the War & Leisure tour makes the most of these smaller stages, allowing for a live band, which lends a credible rock ‘n’ roll vibe to the show. Miguel has gone on the record about what a big fan of James Brown he is, and you can see that soulful influence in his footwork. The man is a splendid dancer and balances structured choreography with an energetic improvisation that suggests he was having just as much fun on stage as we were in the crowd.  

Miguel moved quickly from song to song, letting the lyrics and his performance mostly speak for themselves. When he did finally pause after the eighth or ninth song to say, “I need my guitar,” the crowd went wild, knowing one of his biggest hits was coming up next. “Simple Things,” originally released on the Girls season 2 soundtrack in 2014, introduced Miguel to an expanded audience, and I am clearly not alone in counting it among my very favorite Miguel tracks.

About two thirds of the way through the set, and serving as an introduction to the song “DEAL,” Miguel brought his brother, artist Nonchalant Savant, on stage for what some might call a lecture about capitalism and who really owns what in this so-called free society we live in. Miguel was obviously not content to let people write off opening with “Now” as an isolated incident. There have been political undertones to his music since the beginning, and Miguel himself seems more intentional about making sure his listeners are picking up what he’s laying down. It could have been a downer, but the brothers, with a strong backing from the band, turned it into a moment that’s part of a growing movement. Miguel bringing the audience into that moment with them says a lot about where his head’s at these days.

Photo: Jade Hoyle for CLTure

From there, Miguel transitioned into Caramelo Duro, a Spanish-language bop that got the crowd dancing again, then closed with a batch of crowd-pleasers: “coffee,” “waves,” “P*ssy Is Mine,” and Miguel’s current radio hit “Sky Walker.”

From start to finish, there wasn’t a single moment when the audience checked out. The packed 20-plus song setlist was perfectly balanced across Miguel’s four albums, and it did what Miguel’s music has always done: invite the listener to value the very things that make them human. Love your body, feel your emotions, connect with other people. And don’t forget that even when the world is full of problems, you can celebrate and dance and sing because “we are the look of freedom, we are the sound of freedom.”

Check out the remaining 2018 Miguel tour dates.

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