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Soothing, swaying tunes hold despair and a quest for faith in the songs of Michael Kiwanuka, who performed at the Highline Ballroom on Wednesday night.
Mr. Kiwanuka, the English son of Ugandan parents, can easily (and probably lucratively) be tagged as mellow. His songs purr along at leisurely tempos, harking back to the kindly, folky soul of 1960s and ’70s songwriters like Bill Withers, Van Morrison and Terry Callier, and more recently Beth Orton. They set a few words within a gentle vamp, often with a touch of jazz or blues, and linger over them until they become liquid incantations, melting into the music and finding refuge there. With his breathy baritone and imperturbable tempos, Mr. Kiwanuka could at times be taken for someone in the John Mayer camp.
But there’s no complacency in the songs. Mr. Kiwanuka’s voice often holds a kind of cry, as if a hint of African intonation is breaking through the Anglo-American style. And many of his lyrics offer not easy romance but doubt, prayers and pilgrimages. “Tell Me a Tale” begs the Lord for “a story that I can believe.” In “Worry Walks Beside Me,” over a bluesy, descending chord progression, he wonders, “What will it take to be free again?” And in “Any Day Will Do Fine,” he promises God that “I’ll be changing my ways.”
“Home Again,” the title song of Mr. Kiwanuka’s debut album, isn’t about being home. Its folky fingerpicking, and a melody with a bluesy turn, carry words about longing for home while feeling lost, displaced and uncertain: “One day I know I’ll feel strong again,” he tells himself. And even when he was swinging through a relatively upbeat song like “Bones,” about missing his lover, the lyrics grew more and more desperate, only to conclude, “Without you I’m just bones.” He was more comforting in “Rest,” a folky hymn he played alone on guitar, promising, “I won’t let you worry”; he was taking the worry upon himself.
Mr. Kiwanuka’s band simmered behind him, easing between folk-rock and pre-hip-hop soul grooves and offering some tendrils of bluesy lead guitar. But it never upstaged Mr. Kiwanuka’s voice. His soul searching was always front and center. For his last encore he paid homage to a musical model and a state of mind. The song was Bill Withers’s “I Don’t Know,” and Mr. Kiwanuka had the audience join him on the chorus, becoming a congregation of self-doubt to sing, “I just don’t know.”
Bahamas, a Canadian group led by the songwriter Afie Jurvanen, opened the concert with sly, laconic songs about how many ways a guy can sabotage a relationship. Mr. Jurvanen played acoustic guitar, fingerpicking with a ragtimey lilt or a hint of western swing; between the lines he sometimes raced through brief, speedy bluegrass leads. He gave details of his missteps in songs like “Caught Me Thinking,” dryly singing, “What was I thinking/as if my drinking was the only thing that drove her away/Was it ambition or a war of attrition?,” eventually concluding, “Now I know beyond a shadow of a doubt it’s my fault.” His backup was two female singers, who cooed harmonies with him but got the last word. They concluded the set with an old British ballad: “Come All Ye Fair and Tender Maidens,” a venerable warning about bad boyfriends.