For anyone in Los Angeles that thinks they know pop music, or who the great vocalists of our time are, there is no conscionable reason to have missed Nao at the El Rey last Wednesday, where the British electro R&B prodigy graced a sold-out crowd of about 800 with a stadium performance.
Before the El Rey curtain even opened, fans could actually be seen mingling and forming dance circles to the disco playlist in the meantime, already forming an energy for the night that LA club shows famously lack. Finally, the curtain unveils a wash of lime green spotlights and siren noises over an empty stage. As the sirens transitioned into the audio for her debut album’s intro “Like Velvet,” Nao’s four-piece band entered and began the lick for “Get to Know Ya,” at which point the woman herself skipped out to deliver the first verse and the crowd wept with excitement. Though Nao is only one album into her career with For All We Know, this mob of fans gave the welcome that most singers wait decades to gather. By the chorus, the entire building was bouncing as she popped karate-esque dance moves in her parachute pants, belting each note as flawlessly as the recording. In today’s era of recorded music, especially those with electronic production, it’s woefully rare that a modern act truly sticks a performance that exceeds the recorded material. This was a real live show.
From there, For All We Know was performed in almost exact album order, and when it seemed there couldn’t be anymore highlight tracks left to play, she would begin another seizing melody line we’d forgotten in the heat of the previous one. Moreover, Nao is not an artist with “casual” fans—the room became a complimentary choir, chirping every note lyric verbatim, right down to the adlib vocal runs on the recordings. The band reminded the delightful splash of organic guitar and bass that accompanied the heavy synth and electronic elements on the album, lining each song with a timeless funk thump throughout. Highlights included “In the Morning,” which she preceded by noting was — incredibly — the first song she ever wrote, and latest single “Girlfriend,” which she revealed was a song she wrote here in LA.
Rest assured, the octave range and penetrating vocal runs on Nao’s records did not require even a morsel of studio magic, and are in fact better when improvised in person. As she howled the final vulnerable lines, her eyes appeared to well up before the audience. Whatever tender moment inspired those lyrics, she was feeling it all over again as she sang them. Perhaps it was because she summoned the energy of the city in which she wrote it, but “Girlfriend” was the most powerful performance of the night.
According to her record of press and interviews, Nao has only been writing music for some two or three years now. To watch her career blossom from a Soundcloud to a headlining world tour in so little time is to witness living proof of someone who was simply born to do something. To think her last visit to Los Angeles was just last year at the cozy Roxy sharing a headline with Mura Masa is a marvel of artistic progress, one that is both unbelievable and expected after seeing For All We Know come so seamlessly to life. Those able to attend the El Rey have a memory to treasure, because after this year, it’s unlikely anyone will ever see Nao in an intimate club setting again.
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Words: Jamie Lawlor