"We crave a different kind of buzz," New Zealand-born pop sensation Lorde sings in her mega-hit "Royals." The lyrics of the Grammy-winning Song of the Year scorned the music world's fascination with the famous and then, ironically, pushed its creator right into the jaws of the beast. With her D.C. concert date coming at the start of her first North American tour, the buzz on Lorde herself became rather deafening and some skeptics had their critical knives sharpened, doubting that a teenage singer/songwriter still fresh on a debut album could handle a 3,ooo+ capacity venue like the Echostage.
The crowd that made the club JRO (jostling room only) on Friday night appeared to have no such doubts. At just after 10 p.m. (after an engaging and well-received set by local act Lo-Fang) Lorde took to the stage - a picture of simplicity in a subdued black outfit and long, wavy hair - and proceeded to work her way through a compelling 14-song set (all but two tracks from the extended "Pure Heroine") that had the audience swooning and critics capping their poison pens.
In short - good lord, Lorde was good!
With only two players supporting her - keyboardist Jimmy Mac and drummer Ben Barter - the sound was surprisingly full and dynamic, especially on the percussive end. Whatever electronic tricks were used to fill out the layered vocals, it felt like logical accompaniment, not fakery. Lorde's vocals were strong and direct and, most important, live.
She opened with "Gladiators," walking out alone, her two-piece band playing in back of a large curtain. By the third song, "Tennis Court," it was clear that the crowd hadn't just come for one hit, but knew most of the words to most of the songs, turning much of the set into a communal performance although, wisely, Lorde only turned the mic out to the crowd for a brief moment in that big hit.
Not quite as twitchy as she was on the Grammys, Lorde still whips her hair and gestures with her hands in staccato bursts, but it looked like natural exuberance. When she donned a metallic cape for the sort-of encore (she left the stage briefly after "Royals" but the band never stopped playing) and spun, she could have been disco Stevie Nicks.
Sometimes she was bathed in light, sometimes obscured in darkness, sometimes standing in front of large projections - including an imposing one of herself - on large screens behind her. While the lighting made things nightmarish for the official press photographers, it couldn't stop the glow of phones and compact digital devices, hoisted in the air to capture memories and creating a tidal lightshow of their own.
With a hint of goth (dark lipstick was the accessory of choice for packs of girls-night-out) and the pull of a slow, danceable undertow, sometimes ("400 Lux") reminiscent of Talking Heads at half-speed, it was a night of supremely catchy, yet guilt-free, pop.
For all the mom-and-daughter teams who made the pilgrimage to the hard-to-find Echostage, there were as many rapt listeners who could be her 20-something siblings, and even some old enough to be her parents. You could see the latter wincing at the line "it feels so scary growing old" in "Ribs," which followed an extended intro in which Lorde spoke about her sister and acknowledged her own odd position as a young woman called to be some kind of generational spokesperson.
As confirmed to those who not all-jokingly demanded to see a birth certificate, Lorde won't turn 18 until November, but watching this show, to call her a teen phenomenon or wise beyond her years is to undermine talent and poise that would be impressive at any age.
Whatever other people want her to be, the former Ella Yelich-O'Connor seems to have made a deal with her fans to weather the media storm together. The sentiment of her first post-"Royals" song, "Team" ("We're on each other's team"), punctuated with genuine thanks to the audience and a celebratory confetti cannon, came as a cementing of the bond. Her final words of the night, at the end of "A World Alone," had the feel of Lorde's own refusal to play the media game. "People are talking," she sang as the band played its final notes. "Let 'em talk."
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