Miguel’s reputation often precedes him. He’s the type of artist played when you want to “chill,” when you want to “vibe” — the human iteration of the term “kickback.” Yet the most interesting parts of his new War & Leisure Tour, which stopped at the Hearst Greek Theatre in Berkeley this past Thursday, were the moments he transcended “leisure” and waged all-out “war” — on sound, on the dance floor and … on capitalism?
Before the show even started, it was easy to tell that something was different. The stage was decked out in an atypically performative manner, with a giant industrial platform that wouldn’t look out of place at a Beyoncé concert.
As the lights flickered intensely and the band took its place, Miguel rose out of the ground, slowly, shrouded in a yellow smoke. It was difficult to tell if the fog was a theatrical component or simply emitted from the hundreds of Juul hits being simultaneously exhaled into the amphitheater. Either way, the effect was godlike.
Miguel remained almost entirely hidden by the smoke for the first couple of songs, impossible to make out except for a light outline ripping and rolling all over the platform. As he began to croon the opener, “Criminal,” his vocals were almost drowned out by the lead guitarist — a decidedly different production choice than the version of the track found on the album War & Leisure. A song that originally lulled now banged joltingly and vibrantly.
After the first couple of songs, Miguel settled into his usual “chiller” routine. “I have one rule,” he told the audience. “Respect yourself, respect others, skywalk all night. … This is a hate-free zone.” He followed this audience interaction with “How Many Drinks?” and “Banana Clip” — ultimate decompressors that had most of the audience pulsating back and forth, eyes closed, feeling every inch of Miguel’s creamy warble.
This run, which later included “Sure Thing” and “Harem,” tended to blend into one long mixture of upbeat nursery rhymes, keeping the audience entertained if not ecstatic.
Miguel then broke the streak, loudly and suddenly, with one long roar on “Wolf.” Equal parts Otis Redding and Prince, he abandoned his usually silky persona to give a performance that was soulful and straining. Not many performers can do a full knee slide on a downhill ramp while harmonizing a high note in one long, strained bellow; Miguel apparently can. And he should do so more often.
This “soulful Miguel,” who nimbly danced a fast-forwarded moonwalk while simultaneously sustaining his meticulous vocals for theatricality, culminated with the biggest and most delightful surprise of the night: “DEAL.” Written and performed with his brother, Nonchalant Savant (who was also an opener for the show), the tune was produced in reaction to the involvement of big money in our political system. “Do you like the way big business have infiltrated our politicians?” Miguel asked a stunned audience.
“No? Then say, ‘Fuck you!’ ” Miguel advised. The next three minutes were a jumble of more than 8,000 audience members shouting, “Fuck you!” at America’s big businesses. Perhaps this isn’t a shocking occurrence in Berkeley, but for a performer who has too often been defined by his mellowness, this change of pace was exciting. It didn’t hurt that the song was also catchy as hell.
Miguel ended the night by revisiting a couple classics — “Pussy is Mine” and “Adorn” — before launching into his latest bop “Sky Walker.” The juxtaposition of these last couple songs illustrated the evolution of Miguel’s career distinctly — from a performer who is often relegated to smooth listening to one who got the whole audience up and dancing. Miguel is the same “Miguel” he’s always been — he’s just breaking out of the box of chillness he has been too often been confined to. We were lucky to be here to witness it.