Twenty-five years ago, it would be hard to fathom a left-of-centre R&B artist packing venues like the 3,000 capacity Rebel in Toronto. But the Soulquarians opened a new lane, which artistically minded, commercially adjacent singers and producers have been slowly widening ever since. And while radio has yet to catch up, a casual look at their streaming numbers for such artists tells a totally different tale.
Of course, "left-of centre R&B" is a pretty broad definition — as showcased by the evening's performances, there are multitudes. Rising TDE star SiR offered one such take. Standing centre stage and flanked by a DJ and keyboardist (who also happened to be his brother), he worked through a short set of low-key R&B. The California crooner offered little in the way of showmanship; matching the slow, head-nodding vibe of his records, he only really came alive for final track "D'Evils." Unfortunately, the subtlety of his music was lost in the cavern-like club.
Miguel struck a different chord entirely. Following a screening of his "Now" video, which showcases the injustices endured by immigrants at the Adelanto Detention facility in California, the singer, the son of a Mexican-American father and African-American mother, offered a crash course in the ins-and-outs of turning introspective R&B into stadium rock-sized spectacle.
Opening with "Criminal," he appeared wearing a flight jacket, backlit by an image of a fighter jet, underlining the live transformation to maximalism. As he worked through a set that pulled heavily from his latest LP, War & Leisure, his songs, usually buoyed by a sense of space, were sanded down to their core elements by his four-piece backing band.
The change elevated bangers like "Banana Clip," and the bouncy "Do You..." into which he inserted a quick interpolation of Musical Youth's "Pass the Dutchie." Matching the music's buoyant energy, he spun around his mic stand like an unruly combination of James Brown and Aerosmith's Steven Tyler, liberally thrusting his hips toward the audience. But songs like the sparse "Come Through and Chill" and "City of Angels" felt diminished in comparison. That they were lumped together in the main set's back half only further emphasized the lack of energy both onstage and in the audience.
Miguel picked up the pace with a grinding version of "Coffee" that brought down the house only to once again kill his own momentum. He lectured the crowd on the meanings behind his last three albums: Kaleidoscope Dream is about "curating your reality"; Wildheart, freeing yourself from the opinions of others. Illustrating the daily struggle of trying to stay positive that underlines War & Leisure, what Miguel calls sky walking, he took several stabs at having the crowd yell out the album's title, but only in their heads (not everyone got the memo). "Thank you for listening to me rant" he acknowledged, before swinging back with the Marvin Gaye-esque "Pineapple Skies."
The back-and-forth continued in the encore, a raw and ragged version of "Pussy is Mine" juxtaposed with the bubbling buoyancy of "Adorn." "Top Gun on my Tom Cruise" he sang on "Sky Walker" the night's closer, bookending his opening image, while insinuating that, despite what some might say, he can in fact have it both ways. "I play for keeps, I don't lose."