|S E T L I S T|
Halfway through Kenna’s brief set on 19 June, he stopped the music and started talking about what his music meant. “I’m blessed to make music, and although it’s taken a long time to get to you, this record is about love, unconditional love,” said Kenna, referring to his recent release on Sony, New Sacred Cow. “The new sacred cow is self. I’m trying to avoid that by giving you a part of myself.”
19 Jun 2003: Shuba's Chicago
The forthrightness of this statement came as kind of a surprise. Accustomed as I am to musicians who prefer to shroud their words in mumbles and mystery, Kenna’s frankness about his meanings and motivations was entirely unexpected, yet undeniably appealing. It was as if he was saying “Look—our time here is short, so let’s just cut to the chase.” And, after the troubles he’s had with the music business, Kenna probably has good reason for feeling that way.
Originally signed to Fred Durst’s Flawless label, Kenna recorded New Sacred Cow in 2001. The record sat on the shelf for two years, with frustrations and animosities piling up until Kenna was finally released from his contract and allowed to take New Sacred Cow along with him. Now, finally touring in support of an album which must seem like ancient history to him, Kenna seems to be a man imbued with an overwhelming sense of urgency, aware that he’s wasted enough time already. This urgency manifests itself in the intensity of Kenna’s live show.
Music and performance obviously mean a lot to Kenna, and his passion was evident from introduction to curtain call. Keeping his promise by giving as much of himself as possible to the 60-odd people gathered in the intimate venue, Kenna overwhelmed the crowd with a heartfelt performance tinged with (if this is measurable) a palpable sincerity that lent credence to his message of love and selflessness. Backed by a really tight three-piece band that seemed to feed off of his energy, the Ethiopian-born singer took the stage at 7:00, starting out with a high-octane version of “Sunday After You”, with his impassioned tenor vocals building in intensity throughout the song, providing a nice counterpoint to the driving drums and dual synth setup behind him. Kenna’s guitar-free sound is decidedly unique. It was odd seeing a show with no guitarists; but Kenna’s keyboardists tried their best to make up for this deficiency, repeatedly strapping their Moogs around their shoulders and playing them like Fenders.
“Hell Bent” started with a simple keyboard melody intro, swinging into a spasmodic backbeat, then dropping back to the melody; backbeat and melody continued their dialogue throughout the song, which ended with a lovely, swooning atmospheric vocalise. Next came the album’s first single, “Freetime”, which was a definite highlight of the show. With Aaron Sterling’s determined drumming setting the pace, the band pulled off a frenzied rendition of the song, Kenna crooning “Where do you go to be free?” in measured legato tones over jagged keyboard riffs.
Kenna’s music, exuberant and infectious, is decidedly dancing music—and although the Schuba’s crowd wasn’t a dancing crowd, Kenna more than made up for this deficiency, dancing around the stage like a man possessed whenever he wasn’t singing, a gyrating cross between Elmer Gantry and the Automation Kid. Yet if the dancing engaged the audience’s eyes, the music more than engaged their ears with a rich collection of musical treats and surprises. Kenna and crew are skillful musicians, and the combination of their unique talents resulted in a strikingly original sound. The drums set the time, laying down danceable house rhythms; the keyboards provided a fitting counterpoint with their ‘80s melodies; and Kenna’s concentrated dynamics and phrasing tied it all together.
This strange musical synergy was perhaps shown to its best effect in “New Sacred Cow”, which featured a driving two-beat and dual synthesizers flanking Kenna as he sang, creating a video-game-ish effect which devolved into a calliope dance breakdown. The set closed with “Love Hate Sensation”, with funky keyboard riffs channeling Talking Heads as Kenna, grabbing the mike in anguish, declared that there’s “A better way to go / A better way to feel.” Simple sentiments, passionately expressed—Kenna’s modus operandi, it seems.
I’ve listened to the record, and it surprisingly doesn’t do as much for me as I thought it would, and I think the missing element is the live presence of Kenna himself. On stage, he’s a magnetic figure, radiating inner confidence, and his vibrant energy elevates the material. During “Red Man”, Kenna reminded one of nothing so much as a charismatic street preacher, filled with the fire of his convictions: eyes closed, arms raised to God, singing “Love will lift you high” as the keyboards crescendoed . . . it’s the gospel according to Kenna, and if it’s not transcendence, it’s at least a minor epiphany. See this show.