Here’s the thing – the young crowd who turned out at Spark Arena to see firstly Kehlani and then Halsey had a hell of a time. They knew the songs, they sang along with them, and cheered, clapped and waved with huge enthusiasm the whole night. You’d be thinking the performers themselves, the promoters, and the audience, were all happy and would be very well disposed to a return visit to these shores.
For the great majority it was a grand night of modern pop: pop with soul, r and b and perhaps jazz blended in, in the case of Kehlani, and a more melodic, synth heavy version from Halsey.
Having said all that, I am a middle aged reviewer whose musical tastes derive from 60’s and 70’s rock and pop, and this music wasn’t to my liking particularly. I found the songs merged into one after a while, but then I’m still someone who likes to see and hear a guitar being played on stage. Still, let’s put my bias to one side – you can’t be expected to be a fan of every artist who comes to town. And, there’s a lot of stuff to talk about.
And let’s start with the social politics. A few days after prominent Australian rugby player Israel Folau set off a storm of comment after his social media remark that the right place for gays was in hell, both performers delivered powerful messages of inclusion. Probably neither Kehlani nor Halsey had heard of Folau, and they certainly didn’t mention him, but their remarks were timely to say the least. Kehlani was several songs into her set, marked by her music but also by her sexual, gyrating, hip swaying and thrusting dance style. She then had a chat with the audience, mentioned she was queer (her word) and asked how many other queers were out there (there were many). It was a proud call to arms, and a reminder about not jumping to conclusions. Up to that point, I had assumed she was straight. It didn’t make me enjoy the music any more, and I thought she relied too heavily on her dance moves to sell her songs, but I had a greater respect for her. I can express myself how I want, she was saying, and if I don’t match your preconceived notions of what a gay person looks like, well more fool you.
From Halsey’s banter with the audience, with several mentions of failed relationships with men, she (apparently) is not gay. But she included a strong shout out for the LGBT community, accompanied in the next song with video on the screen behind her of couples of all sexual orientation kissing.
Another striking aspect of the evening for me was that here we had two solo artists who were having to hold everyone’s attention mostly on their own. Kehlani had a three piece band behind her, but basically had most of the stage all to herself. Halsey worked with a bigger three tier stage, made all the bigger by the fact her drummer and keyboard player were positioned well off to the sides. Yes, she had a lot of bells and whistles in her choreographed show, with an amazing dancer called Teetee who joined her for many of the songs, plus lighting changes, video, a few special effects, and costume changes. That sounds like a lot of help I know, but Halsey sank or swam on the strength of her voice, and her banter with the audience. In both cases, for me, I grew a little tired of the solo act and hankered for seeing other musicians performing more prominently. That feeling was only reinforced by the fact that both artists really relied on a drummer and keyboards, plus pre-recorded backing tracks. Dare I say I grew a tad weary after a while.
Halsey is a confident performer, something that clearly appealed to her fans, especially when she spoke of relationship tangles and angst. Her choice of language is worth commenting on. She made frequent use of the F word, probably much more so than any other artist I can think of since Steve and I started reviewing live music on Crave! She used it so much that if felt like a strategy on her part. It was as if to say “I’m a grown up and I can talk this way, so there.” Again, this seemed to be fine with her young audience. To an older onlooker it was no big deal, seemingly done more for effect than anything else. Halsey’s father was in the audience and she introduced him at one point. I couldn’t help but wonder what he thought of his daughter’s constant profanity.
The quality of the sound varied. Especially in Halsey’s set the bass was occasionally so low and loud it was distorting. That made the job of listening to the lyrics more challenging., When you know an artist’s material – as this crowd did – you know what’s coming and joining in is all part of the fun. Not being familiar with the material I struggled to follow the lyrics of both artists. Yes, yes, you’ll say that makes me a fuddy duddy, but it surely it detracts from what a performer is trying to achieve if you can’t grasp what they’re saying.
So are my qualms all about being of a different generation? Maybe. Even if you don’t embrace a singer’s musical style you can still appreciate their art and talent. Neither artists clicked with me, but should either Kehlani or Halsey return – and Kehlani told us this was her third visit to New Zealand in six months – I reckon they’d pack out an arena again.
Steve McCabe took the concert photos for Crave!