Review: 'Electric Lady' Janelle Monae at the Electric Factory

Obama Chicago Janelle Monae
R&B singer Janelle Monae performs for the audience during a campaign event for President Barack Obama, Wednesday, Jan. 11, 2012, in Chicago. (AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogast)

If Janelle Monae is in a hurry, maybe that's because she has so much ground to cover.

Opening her U.S. tour on Sunday in support of the dazzlingly diverse new The Electric Lady at - where else? - the Electric Factory, the 27 year old Kansas City, Kansas native took an appreciative audience through a highly personalized survey of the history of genre blending African American pop.

Over the course of a nearly two hour evening that included a 15 minute or so encore version of "Come Alive (The War Of The Roses) from her 2010 album The ArchAndroid, Monae tipped her cap to Cab Calloway and covered Michael Jackson and Prince.

Monae led a sharply dressed, highly capable 9 piece band through original songs that typically mixed in elements of funk, soul, rock and rap as they built to a crescendo. She playfully developed her trademark science fiction themes involving android outsiders who represent the ostracized, discriminated-against "other" but can teach the button-downed mainstream a thing or two about the soul-freeing benefit of letting your freak flag fly.

Sometimes, Monae's high energy musical approach and performance style can be too frenetic for its own good. Watching her can feel more like a race to the finish than a walk through the park. The Electric Lady, which features guest appearances from Prince, Erykah Badu and Solange (none of whom were on hand at the Factory)  is the rare album that benefits from between-song comedic interludes, because they're funny and pointed, but also allow the listener to catch her or his breath.

To be sure, a Monae performance is a highly energetic affair that plays like an athletic event, whether the workout in question is her own "Ghetto Woman" (dedicated to "Your mama" and "Your Grandma") or her takes on the Jackson Five's "I Want You Back" or Prince's "Let's Go Crazy." 

She came out dressed in white with black riding boots, as if set to compete in the steeplechase, and later changed into an androgynous ensemble that made her look like the hardest working food server in show business.

Her outfits matched those of her backing band, which featured 7 dressed-in-white male musicians (including a pair of horn players), plus two female back up singers whose black and white striped shirts made them appear as if they came to the gig after refereeing a football game.

The diminutive dervish is a polymorphous perpetual motion machine onstage, displaying dance moves evocative of everyone from Gene Kelly to James Brown, who was referenced in a winning homage during her funk workout "Tightrope" in which she collapsed on stage before being helped to her feet and wrapped in a cape.

But Monae is learning how to ease off the gas pedal, and quiet the cacophony down - a good move in a cavernous room like the Factory, where the mix on the louder songs was far from ideal. Her current single, "Primetime," a warmly emotive duet with Miguel on The Electric Lady, unfolded live at a most welcome, languorous pace.

In "Come Alive," band members play-acted at bringing a pretending-to-be-expired leader back to life. The song also involved a hushed, extended segment in which all the music fell away except for a hypnotic bass line, as a by-then-revived Monae stealthily made her way into the crowd, the entertainer-as-Android meeting her human fans in the flesh.  

Previously: Chasing Brian Wilson Follow In the Mix on Twitter