Miguel | photo by Lissa Alicia for WXPN
Less War, More Leisure: Miguel holds court at The Fillmore Philadelphia
I first saw Miguel Jontel Pimentel at South by Southwest, what feels like a very long six years ago. Back then, he was a promising but relatively conventional second-string R&B hitmaker – though already (unbeknownst to us at the time) in the midst of a metamorphosis that would lead him to the dazzling creative breakthrough of his second album, Kaleidoscope Dream. But even at that early stage, his nascent star power was blinding, and blindingly obvious. Some time later, mostly by happenstance, I caught the livestream of his set at Pitchfork Festival during the summer long hot of 2016 – just about a week after the deaths in Baton Rouge, St. Paul and Dallas – and witnessed the singer, dressed in angelic white, seizing an emotionally fraught historic moment and channeling it into an empowering, healing and utterly captivating performance.
Last night’s show at the Fillmore offered neither the thrill of discovery and sense of limitless possibility of that 2012 showcase set, nor the urgent topicality, coherence and moral force of the Pitchfork performance. But it didn’t need them. Even as nothing wilder than a seasoned working entertainer, punching in for another showbiz night, Miguel is among the best in the business. Throughout a generous twenty-plus-song set that drew from each of his four albums – including almost the entirety of his most recent, last year’s War and Leisure – he held the enthusiastic crowd in the palm of his hand all night long.
Miguel is a damn fine songwriter, a seriously kick-ass dancer, and straight-up transcendent as a singer. (He’s a somewhat questionable dresser, but we’ll get to that later.) But his greatest asset, the best thing he’s got going for him as an artist and a performer, is simply being Miguel. His impish, kid-brother grin, that lazily laidback, day-dreamy look in his eyes, his breezily unabashed lust, his general air of twinkling, conspiratorial mischief – it makes for a pretty endearing, undeniable persona, one that skirts coming across as obnoxiously cocky (for the most part – and impressively, even when his name is emblazoned on a giant screen behind him) through sheer earnest cheerfulness. (And sure, the washboard abs don’t hurt either.) Pimentel’s brother, who opened last night’s show before a set from Top Dawg-signed Cali soulster SiR, goes by the stage name Nonchalant Savant, but that description (clunky though it is) is also pretty good encapsulation of Miguel’s appeal.
For his current tour, Miguel has leveled-up – quite literally – to a glitzy, light-bedecked multi-story set that makes use smart use of the vertical space available at venues like the Fillmore, with a high platform in the back of the stage (flanked by hefty drum and keyboard setups) and a long sloping sideways ramp down to stage level. He first appeared – emerging out of a plume of smoke, in suitably dramatic pop-star fashion – on the top level, in front of a large, low-res video screen which had the odd (and slightly unfortunate) effect of making his living silhouette appear digitally pixelated. Beyond that, while Miguel made full use of the available space to strut, thrust, prance and lounge around on multiple levels, there was little in the way of stagecraft, apart from no fewer than three costume changes. These consisted of him disappearing from view for a minute or two, while (somewhat confusingly) continuing to talk to us, and then coming back out with a different, equally loose-fitting Miguel War & Leisure T-shirt (all four of them available at the merch table for prices ranging, for unclear reasons, from $45-65), over the same black combat boots and weird, baggy plasticky pants with prominent pockets. (There really was a lot going on in those pants.)
There’s some inherent tension between the spirit of intimacy and authentic individuality that is the keynote of Miguel’s songwriting and the polished, consummately professional performer role into which he has quite naturally and comfortably settled. And I’d contend that he’s not quite convincing enough – on either side of the equation – to completely gloss over that incongruity. But, on the whole, it works. Certainly, the crowd (majority, if not predominantly female) was happy and eager to eat up his playfully hammy routine of knowing come-ons (“it’s just you and me tonight, huh?”), which after all is the logical accompaniment to frankly libidinous fare like “How Many Drinks?,” “Simple Things” and “Come Through and Chill” (not to mention the swaggeringly vulnerable encore “Pussy Is Mine,” which prompted someone near me shout out “it’s yours Miguel!”) but also the only slightly more starry-eyed hits “Sure Thing,” “Adorn,” and “Do You…” (the latter livened up with a spot-on interpolation of “Pass The Dutchie”) – each one a highlight of a lengthy set that occasionally suffered from lack of sonic and energetic variety.
His casual if not quite conversational banter also included a bit of amiably wistful reminiscence where he walked us through the trajectory of his career to date, cutely referring to the albums as “ours” rather than his. Apparently, Kaleidoscope Dream is about “curating your reality,” whereas Wildheart is about living and thriving in that reality, and trusting your intuitions. (And here I thought it was basically about sex.) As for War & Leisure – well, it’s been said, but the emphasis, both on record and on stage, is pretty clearly (if unsurprisingly) on the “leisure” side of the fence – “war” getting a too-short shrift that’s something of a lost opportunity given the political promise of that Pitchfork set. Last night, the album’s most overtly topical tune, “Now,” was relegated to a video screening before the start of the proper set, and the only real bit of onstage politicking (for which he basically apologized mid-sentence) was a somewhat generic, if impassioned, denouncement of corporate lobbying and money in politics, which lead into a slightly incongruous audience chant of “fuck you pay me” and a rendition (accompanied by his brother) of Wildheart’s “DEAL,” with Miguel occasionally checking to make sure we were following along (“you know where capitol hill is, right?”).
Below, check out a gallery of photos from all three sets last night, beginning with SiR.