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Janelle Monáe Rocks the Embarcadero!

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The Electric Lady Gives a High-Voltage Gig

Monáe, belting out her opening number in downtown San Francisco. [Paul Iorio]

Workers in downtown San Francisco got a pleasant surprise during their lunch break last Friday (March 7): Janelle Monáe, the R&B dynamo (fresh off an appearance at the White House), performed for free with her band in Justin Herman Plaza.

And anyone who wanted to get near the front of the stage -- to see singing and dancing that recalled Michael Jackson, Prince, Bruno Mars and Nicki Minaj -- could do so relatively easily, if one came early.

I arrived around 10 minutes before showtime and got the equivalent of a 10-row center view. Posted here are some of the photos I shot.

Monae, with a background singer. [photo by Paul Iorio]

Monáe sang and danced non-stop under a brilliant blue sky for around an hour. Taking the stage with a highly-disciplined band that included around a dozen players, all dressed in white or white and black, the 28-year-old singer launched into "Givin' Em What They Love" from her most recent album, The Electric Lady, released last September.

Then she played her single from last summer, "Dance Apocalyptic," which combines Brill Building-ish girl group pop with Prince-ish funk.

But the knock-out was her spot-on cover of The Jackson Five's "I Want You Back" (which segued into "ABC"), her voice a doppelgänger for Michael Jackson's.

And she addressed the crowd before doing 2007's "Cold War:"

"This song is dedicated to anyone who has ever felt ostracized because of who you love, because of the color of your skin, because of your religion," said Monáe.

Near the end of the show, she was carried down the center aisle (an inch of so from me) to greet the crowd. At another point, she got everyone in the audience to sit down before commanding them to stand again. She also did call-and-response scat singing in the spirit of the heyday of the The Cotton Club -- and a bit of rapping during "Electric Lady."

The show was a gift from tech entrepreneur Mark Benioff, celebrating the 15th anniversary of his company, SalesForce. And the event was also part of an anti-hunger campaign. Benioff and San Francisco mayor Ed Lee spoke briefly before the concert.

"She's Michael Jackson, she's Prince, she's Ella Fitzgerald... all in one great incredible package," said Benioff from the stage.

The crowd, cheering wildly, seemed to agree.

Roarin' at mid-day. [photo by Paul Iorio]

Monae writhes on stage. [photo by Paul Iorio]

A high-energy gig. [photo by Paul Iorio]

Reaching for the mic. [photo by Paul Iorio]

Monae, flanked by background singers. [photo by Paul Iorio]

Monae is "resuscitated" by bandmates. [photo by Paul Iorio]