In his native England, Michael Kiwanuka’s three albums have each reached the top five, with one topping the charts and two (thus far) going gold. His American presence, meanwhile, can primarily be measured in the number of television shows that have used his songs, foremost being his “Cold Little Heart” serving as the theme song for “Big Little Lies.” So the singer who sold out Royale on Tuesday was nonetheless one who had to prove that he was more than just a soundtrack, that his songs could do the heavy lifting all by themselves.
And he did, but only fitfully. Opening with a slow thump, throbbing bass, and dark, cooing vocals from the invaluable Emily Holligan and Simone Daley Richards, “Piano Joint (This Kind of Love)” blossomed into crisp trip-hop, while “You Ain’t the Problem” sat halfway between “Love Train” and “Dance to the Music” before reaching a state of floating, shuddering grace. A propulsive garage-Motown guitar-riff backbone powered “Rolling,” and a Fela Kuti groove — and single-minded adherence to that groove — helped “Black Man in a White World” grow simultaneously steamier and tighter as it repeated.
But Kiwanuka quietly struggled nearly as often. The band entered “Hero” with a satisfyingly hard judder, but it spun its wheels for minutes on end once it got to where it was going, and “Tell Me a Tale” was an uneasy splice of strummy “Breaking the Girl” verses and a chorus of laid-back hot-summer soul. “Cold Little Heart” was too choppy to work as the surf noir that it aimed for, albeit with a powerful undertow largely provided by the wordless singing of Richards and Holligan.
That underlined maybe the night’s most frustrating fact, which was that Kiwanuka’s unassuming Bill Withers voice may have been, in a very un-Bill Withers way, the weakest element of his own performance. His eyes were shut as he sang, but it seemed to give him leave to hide rather than to give in, and he was never forceful, sharp, or weighty enough to supply the character the songs ached for. When Holligan let loose on “Rule the World,” it was hard not to lament that Kiwanuka couldn’t do the same.
But if Kiwanuka didn’t elevate his own material, there were several times when he didn’t prevent it from floating. Assisted by Richards and Holligan oooh-ing and aaah-ing like the “Star Trek” theme, “Hard to Say Goodbye” and “Solid Ground” both swelled into powerful washes of sound. And the busy, off-center drums and gradually descending chords of “Final Days” led to a slower, space-rock coda where Kiwanuka pinged out a simple guitar line as the rest of the instruments reached out to infinity. At that moment, he shimmered in slow motion. Too often, though, what he did was sufficient but somehow still not enough.
Fronting an acoustic guitar/electric bass lineup, Sammy Brue opened with undistinguished, overarticulate coffeehouse folk delivered in an eager keen.
With Sammy Brue. At Royale, Feb. 11.
Marc Hirsh can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @spacecitymarc.