Lorde’s artful, unconventional pop captivates at the Wells Fargo Center

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Lorde | photo by Natalie Piserchio for WXPN | nataliepiserchio.com

Lorde may be merely “a little sensitive person, alive in this world,” as she described herself on stage Monday night – but she’s got no trouble captivating an awfully big roomful of people.  Notwithstanding the appropriately huge, high-energy parts of her show at the Wells Fargo Center – like a surging, triumphal, set-closing “Green Light”: lights flashing, synths blaring, crowd shouting along with every word, confetti cannons filling the air with tissue-paper stars as a glass cage filled with dancers drifted up to the ceiling… –  the moment that felt the biggest, and resonated the loudest, was also the simplest and smallest.

All but alone on stage, perched casually on the edge of a platform scattered with lights, the 21-year old New Zealander delivered sparsely-accompanied renditions of three songs. Her ballads “Writer in the Dark” and “Liability,” and Bruce Springsteen’s “I’m On Fire” (she sang Kanye in Chicago, Drake in Toronto, and St. Vincent in New York; I guess this was close enough for us) done as a medley with “400 Lux,” created a voluminous, plain-spoken intimacy big enough to draw in the whole room.  She had chatted with the crowd before – projecting warmth and enthusiasm, but still offering mostly pro-forma pop-show platitudes (“they told me I should talk to you about sport”) and flirting with the disingenuously fawning tone of your average run-of-the-mill megastar (“it’s so good to be back in your beautiful city…”).  

Lorde | photo by Natalie Piserchio for WXPN | nataliepiserchio.com

But now she opened up at greater length, riffing on the absurdities of touring life (the thrill of using “sport showers” at arenas across the country while imagining “who I’m trying to avoid getting athlete’s foot from today”), and delving into the emotional process that led her from scoring a surprise international smash at age 16 (noting that Americans were among the first to latch on it) to retreating in order to create the masterful follow-up Melodrama, which was released last year to critical raves but only middling sales.  If it wasn’t the most revelatory banter in the world, it nevertheless gave us our clearest glimpse of the abundant charm and self-possessed charisma that belies Lorde’s self-characterization as a quirky, awkward misfit.  And that pair of piano ballads – perhaps the two most poignant moments from a powerfully poignant album – offered a particularly affecting opportunity for her to flex a voice that’s somewhat unconventional but all the more expressive for it.

The performance as a whole was artfully minimal.  Lorde was joined onstage by a three-piece backing band, mostly obscured at the back of the stage, and a cadre of six dancers in drab, nondescript outfits who emerged in various configurations to perform modernist, sometimes hip-hop-inflected choreography, only occasionally interacting with the singer.  Otherwise, apart from a mic stand and some basic lighting elements, the stage was empty save for the aforementioned platform, which rose up higher and even lifted above the stage to become a transparent box-like structure that could have been bus stop or a space station or the glass-walled vestibule of a faceless institutional building (for some reason it reminded me of the diner in Hoppers’ Nighthawks), and which served at various points as a smoke-filled backdrop, a floating, tilting frame for the dancers to enact tableaux vivants echoing Lorde’s lyrics, and – at one point – a make-shift dressing-room, wherein Lorde changed from a see-through shirt and comically big lavender satin pantaloons into a hardly-less-revealing black top and ruffled skirt, briefly flashing a pair of gold-sequined undies in the process.

Lorde | photo by Natalie Piserchio for WXPN | nataliepiserchio.com

This simple but still satisfyingly grand staging kept the focus squarely on the songs, where it clearly belongs.  Lorde performed the better half of her 2013 debut, Pure Heroine – “Royals” being, of course, a stand-out smile-inducing sing-along moment – along with her Disclosure collab “Magnets” and soundtrack loosie “Yellow Flicker Beat,” and the entirety of Melodrama.  Even as someone who has played that latter album countless times and named it one of his favorites of last year, there were definitely still lyrics that hadn’t fully registered until I heard them echoed by an arena full of unabashedly devoted fans (including some especially fervent and frequently shrieking fans seated behind me.)  

Lorde’s music can be strange fit for a stadium setting, trafficking in big emotions yet often shying away from big, obvious, cathartic release: “Green Light,” as aforementioned, definitely delivered a heady, euphoric rush, but it takes a slow-building, circuitous route to get there, while its sibling song, the tremendous “Supercut,” which has a similarly teasing start-stop structure, felt like it stopped short of the full-on dance explosion I anticipated, perhaps because it arrived so unexpectedly soon after the mid-set patch of ballads.

Lorde occupies a funny position at the interstice between mainstream pop and indie music – it’s unclear whether she represents the former bum-rushing the latter or vice versa.  She first emerged, seemingly fully-formed, as a pop heiress apparent – though via a curious, hard-to-categorize song that now appears like something of a fluke (if undeniably massive) hit.  But while she hasn’t shied away from embracing those glitzy trappings, it’s also become clearer that her talents don’t necessarily lie along a well-established, conventional path of stardom, and she seems equally comfortable positioning herself as the quirky outsider, playing to the margins – albeit margins that are evidently numerous enough to fill up an arena.

Run The Jewels | photo by Natalie Piserchio for WXPN | nataliepiserchio.com

That indie/mainstream tension also played out interestingly in her selection of opening acts for this tour, both sizable indie names with respectable followings that still felt fairly incongruous playing to a room this size.  I arrived too late for strident songstress Mitski’s apparently well-received opening set, catching only the last few ringing chords of “My Body’s Made of Crushed Little Stars.”  But I did have the emotionally dissonant experience of watching Run The Jewels while seated next to a family with two fairly young pre-teen kids; grinning along with Killer Mike and El-P’s infectious camaraderie and arena-ready energy while also cringing vicariously on behalf of the parents unexpectedly confronted with the sub-bass overload and cartoonishly rude worldview of one of the most gleefully potty-mouthed acts around.  At least they acknowledged that potential disjuncture in the crowd, and even seemed to revel in it: “kids, welcome to adulthood!”

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