First thing, the unwritten rule that one cannot wear a concert tour t-shirt while at that very concert is now null and void. Following one of her costume changes while performing at Blue Hills Bank Pavilion in Boston, Janelle Monáe stepped onstage wearing an official Janelle Monáe Dirty Computer 2018 concert tour t-shirt. One might think of it as product placement, but in the broad themes of acceptance, inclusion, and love expressed at this concert, I think it was another way for Monáe to say be yourself, wear what makes you comfortable, especially is it’s a shirt with a picture of your own face.
Among the crowd of adoring fans there was quite a bit of expression in fashion of clothing that was sparkly, had bold colors, and/or stated brave political messages. I had the thought before leaving for the concert, “What should I wear to a Janelle Monáe concert?” Not knowing the answer I settled on something like what I always wear, a short-sleeve, button-down shirt with vertical stripes. Ironically, some hip young people complimented me on this shirt, saying that they liked the colors.
It was a very accepting audience, and the most diverse crowd I’d ever seen for anything in Boston. All ages, races, and gender expressions were in attendance. Any fears that I would be too old, white, straight, and cisgender were allayed by the fact there was also an even older white, married couple sitting right in front of us.
Janelle Monáe’s concert was visually striking with Monáe generally performing on stepped pedestal. Her costumes were black and white patterns with flashes of red. Scenes from the “emotion picture” of Dirty Computer as well as archival footage and more abstract patterns were projected behind the stage.
Monáe was accompanied by a five-piece band which included a stunningly-talented guitarist and drummer and synthesizer players who doubled on the horns, depending on the song. I cannot find the band members’ names anywhere online, but I suspect they are members of the Wondaland Arts Society and have recordings of their own. If you know there names let me know in the comments! Monáe also performed with a quartet of dancers. I hesitate to call them “back-up dancers” because they’re dancing was integral to the performance, and if anything it looked as if Monáe and the four dancers were a group of friends hanging out and partying.
Highlights of the concert include “Screwed” which became an audience sing-a-long with help from the video projection. Taking a page from Morris Day of The Time, Monáe glanced at her new outfit in a full-length mirror and ascended the podium to a throne to perform “Django Jane.” The ballad “Primetime” concluded with a stunning guitar solo that I felt was the closest I ever will be to seeing Prince perform live in concert.
That solo gave a Monáe and the dancers the time change into the famous “vagina pants” for a performance of “Pynk.” The enthusiastic crowd even cheered the appearance of Tessa Thompson in the video background. The feeling of inclusion, acceptance, and love was heightened during the performance of “I Like That” when Monáe took the opportunity to compliment the things she liked about several members of the audience.
Perhaps the stand out performance in a night of excellent music, choreography, and stagecraft came during “Make Me Feel.” The song began with an extended dance break with backlit Monáe dancing in silhouette. The song ended with Monáe singing “baby, baby, baby” while the horns played “I Got the Feelin'” In one song that’s already the Prince-iest of all of her songs, Janelle Monáe managed to also pay homage to Michael and Janet Jackson, and James Brown, while confidently expressing her own identity.
The party continued with “I Got the Juice” that turned into a dance-off among Monáe and the dancers. Then she invited members of the audience to come up a “dance as if there lives depended on it.” For the young folk who made it on the stage it was clear that this was the greatest moment of their lives. They took turns dancing to wide acclaim, and Monáe assured each of them that “you’ve got the juice.” Monáe closed out the main set with two songs from her Archandroid album, “Cold War,” and a breathtaking performance of “Tightrope.”
For the encore, Monáe returned to the stage to sing a “love letter to America” in “So Afraid” as images of civil rights and Black Lives Matter protests and civil disturbances. This transitioned into “Americans,” a positive affirmation of the American identity of people often denied that.
Due to MBTA construction and a long wait to get in we missed much of the opening set by St. Beauty, a duo from Atlanta who are part of the Wondaland collective, but I like what I heard and will check them out.
Full Set List
Dirty Computer (the recording of this song from the album, complete with Brian Wilson’s harmonies, played as entrance music)
Crazy, Classic, Life
Take a Byte
I Like That
Don’t Judge Me
Make Me Feel
I Got the Juice