Back in the summer of 2010, Janelle Monae staged a dynamite set at the Greek Theatre, performing a suite of tunes from "The ArchAndroid," her then just-released debut LP that ranged from amped-up R&B to Bowie-esque glam rock. The problem was that hardly anybody was there to see it, since she was playing to less than a half-filled 6,000-seat arena where patrons were still trickling in to see the headliner, Erykah Badu.
But on Sunday night in front of a packed Hollywood Bowl, which holds about three times the Greek's capacity, there was no doubt who the starring attraction was, and Monae more than lived up to the billing. Just as at the Greek four years before, Monae, still in her 20s, proved a born entertainer, bounding about the stage with youthful abandon. She focused mostly on tunes from her sophomore album, "The Electric Lady," a seriously under-sung effort that advanced her "ArchAndroid" persona Cindi Mayweather while also providing much-needed fresh material for her live performances (Monae was still mining songs from "ArchAndroid" at 2013′s Coachella and the act was starting to get a bit tired).
Lady Gaga's little monsters -- "The Electric Lady" is all about empowerment and self-actualization. Badu played a supporting role on one of "Lady's" tracks, "Q.U.E.E.N.," and in singing Badu's part on the song Sunday night, Monae proved perfectly able to play more than one role on the Prince-inspired track. Prince also contributes to one of "Lady's" strongest tracks, "Given 'Em What They Love," a fierce, slow-burner that had the crowd leaning on Monae's every directive. "They say revolution music is dead," said Monae at one point early on, "but I came here to start a revolution."
That revolution represents many things in the Monae galaxy, including the refusal to be pigeonholed into any one genre. There are even hints of John Barry's James Bond music in "The Electric Lady," including that jangly, surf-rock guitar riff (attributed to Monty Norman) featured in the album's opening overture. Certainly Monae wears her influences on her sleeve, but it's the way she combines them that is startling to behold.
She also gives credit where credit is due, paying tribute to Michael Jackson, whose moonwalk she parroted on stage, with a Jackson 5 medley midway through the show that seemingly lifted everybody to their feet. In fact, her falsetto on "I Want You Back" sounded uncannily like the young Gloved One, and certainly the energy and effort that Monae puts into her shows would do Michael proud.
Even in paying homage, Monae topped herself, bringing out Stevie Wonder -- certainly the inspiration behind Monae's Atlanta-based Wondaland Arts Society -- to pay tribute to yet another spiritual forebear, James Brown, on "I Feel Good," with Stevie belting out his part as if he had stepped into a time machine back to his "Fingertips" phase. At one point Monae even donned the James Brown cape before busting out into an extended encore that included Prince's "Let's Go Crazy." It was like a clinic on the history of soul, funk, R&B and all things in between.
Openers Roman GianArthur, a singer-songwriter-guitarist whose power-trio set also displayed flashes of Prince filtered through Marvin Gaye and George Benson; and Afrobeat exponent Seun Kuti & Egypt 80, with its punchy brass backing and Seun's messianic charisma that recalled father Fela, kept the energy level appropriately high.