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What an experience: Janelle Monae electrifies ACL Live

Deborah Sengupta

Editor’s note: This article was originally published November 13, 2013

Keeping with the “Droid revolution” theme that frames her excellent 2013 release “Electric Lady,” Janelle Monae’s entrance to the stage at ACL Live on Tuesday night was preceded by an introduction by a gentleman in a white lab coat who identified himself as Dr. Marlow Mindbender of the “Palace of the Dolls,” the keeper of Ms. Monae’s model. He explained that her temporary release was a special occasion and issued an emphatic directive “Dance or die.” He left the stage and returned rolling Ms. Monae, strapped to a Dolly and wearing a white straight jacket.

The near capacity crowd went wild.

Ms. Monae removed the straight jacket and “came to life” as the “Electric Overture” intro music faded into “Givin’ ‘em What They Love,” the Prince-assisted lead track off “Electric Lady.” Clad in white stretch pants and a crisp button down white shirt with skinny suspenders, she launched into a performance of the track that was anything but robotic. Backed by an insanely funky 7-piece ensemble and two backup singer/dancers in black and white striped gogo dresses she wailed through an utterly electrifying rendition of the song setting the bar high for a show which charged forward with so many climatic showstoppers it began to seem preposterously good.

Monae didn’t dwell on the droid thing much, she “shot” her handlers and triumphantly moonwalked across the stage two tracks in. Instead she allowed each track to reverberate with so much poignant humanity it was impossible not to be moved. Monae is clearly an artist who carries a strong sense of herself, her personal history, her mission and her power. She pours so much heart and soul into her music in a manner that’s sincere, strident and gloriously optimistic.

This was a show that made people dance, cry and testify.

From the long overdue call to arms in “Q.U.E.E.N.” to the explosive joy of “Victorious” the show was an emotional ride, one that swept the audience up completely, dancing and singing along with abandon.

When she left the stage an hour after her start time the crowd cheered furiously for almost five minutes until she returned. She played her uber-hit, the soaring heart love song “Prime Time,” then let her inner Prince go wild covering “Let’s Get Crazy.” Then she went into an epic extended jam of “Come Alive” in which she featured each musician, led an elongated sing-along and convinced the crowd on the floor to crouch low and be quiet so she could walk among them. Then she brought the excitement back up to fever pitch and crowd surfed through the ground level of the venue.

She exited once more, but only for a moment. Returning to the stage she explained to the audience how her career was launched by SXSW where she started small a few years back, and she seemed sincerely moved declaring how much it meant to return to a packed house. Then she took it all out with an ecstasy-inducing rendition of “What an Experience.”

What an experience indeed.