The fashionable Charli XCX was perfectly at home at U Street Music Hall, backed by a talented all-girl band, as she purred and roared to a sold-out audience in the packed underground club.
But U Street Music Hall was absolutely packed so full that space to breathe was difficult to find unless you were far at the back end of the hall, suggesting that Charli really ought to be in the 9:30 Club or some other larger venue next time she comes to DC!
Charli’s cool visual style—in a pale dress and white leather jacket, contrasted to the short black dresses of her band—set the tone visually for a buoyant and electric show. She opened, however, with a rap song, “What I Like,” which isn’t in step with her overall darkly new wave sound. Once into the set, she really hits her stride with “Nuclear Seasons” and “Lock You Up”—both stunningly lush yet spiky pop songs that really set the tone for her album True Romance. It’s songs like these—songs of loneliness and alienation set to a powerful dance beat—that really form the foundation of True Romance, and I was absolutely thrilled to her sing them with vitality and passion.
As Charli XCX eased into earnest renditions of her songs, she begins to engage the audience, particularly with “You (Ha Ha Ha),” a song of deceptively playful scorn that begged people to sing along to the “ha ha ha” in the chorus, which they dutifully did. There was good energy in the room despite (or because of?) the barbed lyrics. A clever mash up of her song “How Can I?” with “Riot Rhythm” by Sleigh Bells follows and the audience is fully mesmerized (even if they are practically standing on top of each other). Charli introduces “Black Roses” from True Romance as her favorite song from the album, and it totally does her justice. The dark love song immediately invokes The Cure, lyrically and instrumentally, while still offering something that is uniquely Charli.
As good as that song is, Charli really grabs attention with her performance of the breakup anthem “I Love It,” a pleasant surprise indeed. Although the song required no introduction (as ubiquitous as it has become), Charli explained that she wrote it for Icona Pop and she was going to sing it because it was awesome. The audience, which knew all the words, sang along with her in the sing-song spoken word manner of the song. Charli’s lovely English accent made the refrain “I Love It” sound even sexier than Icona Pop, to my ear, as she punched out the words with a little bit more sangfroid than ecstasy.
It’s not difficult to imagine someone similar to the 21-year-old Charli XCX having been produced decades ago if say a young Madonna, rather than listening to Motown, had listened to the first incarnation of The Human League and similar early synth bands, and then decided to write disco about the desolation of the human heart inspired by their songs about alienation from human culture. But Charli is still not without a taste for pop pleasantries, as evidenced by a cover of “I Want Candy” in her encore, where she is joined by Chloe Chaidez of opening act Kitten.
Speaking of Chloe and Kitten, the band put on an energetic performance as Ms. Chaidez danced and flipped and climbed just about anywhere she could. As she explained, she is a former gymnast, and her love of climbing along rafters, balancing on the security fence and crowd surfing was on full display.
Kittens’ rollicking new wave, epitomized by a song, “Cut It Out,” about the joys of life and love, was the perfect soundtrack to Chaidez’s antics. During the band’s cover of Prince’s “Purple Rain,” the diminutive singer climbed onto the shoulders of a game member of the audience, from where she sang into the crowd. Kitten were a lot of fun, even if they are, as Wikipedia suggests, a band currently in flux. Hopefully, Chaidez can settle down with a solid lineup and stay on the road where she clearly belongs.