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Review: Unlikely pop star Lorde enchants at Austin Music Hall

Eric Webb

Editor’s note: This article was originally published March 4, 2014

Fans packed Austin Music Hall on Monday night with the kind of cramped jostling reserved only for the biggest, most beloved acts. They stood in the aisles, they spilled into the wings aside the bleacher-style seats, and they peeped through speakers to see the stage. The sold-out show packed in a youthful mob — twentysomething professionals, college students, and a surprising number of crimped-hair middle and elementary school girls. Even as the weather outside flirted with freezing, fans warmed by body heat doffed their heavy coats indoors. When the house lights went down, the ominous synth opening to “Glory and Gore” and the crowd’s deafening roar heralded the show’s star.

It’s not until you see her live that you fully realize this truth: It is deeply weird that Lorde is a global pop star.

Much has been written about the 17-year-old New Zealand-based singer’s seemingly unlikely fame. You could read any number of think-pieces touting the “refreshing” anti-materialism of the monster success “Royals.” If you didn’t know better, you might think that wild hair, dark clothes and lyrics with multiple syllables are Lorde’s chief distinction from, say, Miley or Katy. (This is what the Britney-Avril dichotomy taught us all in 2002.)

But Lorde, with her smoky studio-good vocals, performs like a girl possessed. Actually possessed. Like, Linda Blair possessed. With her untamed, wavy anemone hair and dark lipstick, she would give off an authentic goth vibe, even if she didn’t also dress exactly like The Cure’s Robert Smith (right down to the shiny black boots). There she was, choppily jerking her body like a stop-motion marionette to each haunting beat of “Biting Down.” With every spasm, the crowd absolutely lost its mind — even (or especially) the middle-schoolers.

Pop music, your power is great and mighty indeed.

The Austin Music Hall stage stayed uncrowded, with just Lorde and her DJ washed in an ever-changing light design with a strong penchant for strobes, which seemed to synch up with the singer’s herky-jerky dancing. She completely captivated all on her own, pulling gut-wrenching soul from songs like “Swingin Party” and seeming to share wry intimations with her fans on “Tennis Court.” Moving like the lovechild of full-twirl Stevie Nicks and a 1980s hip-hop hype man, the singer cast a spell with a threatening rendition of “Still Sane” mid-way through the set, the stage completely washed in blood-red light.

And the fans were actually fans: This was no packed house of car-radio jockeys that had only heard “Royals.” Every song came with its own Greek chorus in the audience, a testament to the resonance of Lorde’s excellent debut album, last year’s “Pure Heroine.” From the floor to the rafters, people shouted “We love you Ella!” (The singer’s real name is Ella Yelich-O’Connor.) Though the banter was minimal between songs, Lorde got in a little Texan-baiting conversation for the first stop on her tour. After singing “400 Lux,” on barbecue: “It’s kind of disgusting. But it’s delicious.”

After a heartfelt performance of album highlight “Ribs,” the pop theatrics swelled in earnest for the big hits. Yellow lights and fog complemented a cinematic, remixed buildup for “Royals.” It felt like Pantera was about to emerge on a hydraulic platform underneath a stadium. Lorde sang the song as if she was releasing a thunderstorm with her voice, recalling her sparse and rhythmic performance at the Grammys.

The audience barely had time to scream with delight before the singer launched into “Team,” the showcase song of the night. If “Royals” seemed to crescendo in intensity, this song’s build dwarfed it, building to a fevered, sonically layered, sweeping opus. With every arm flail and million-dollar hook, cheers erupted. Then, as if to double down on the oddity of her stardom, Lorde retreated halfway through the song only to emerge from the wings, James Brown style, wearing a gold lamé wizard’s robe. She finished the number with commanding, flowy panache, in full Sir-Ian-McKellen-as-Gandalf mode. Lorde’s final enchantment: conjuring an explosion of confetti that rained down on the grateful mass of fans.

The wonder of tiny bits of paper swarming through the air is hard to beat. The closing number, “A World Alone,” was just a formality. The set winding down, eerie atmospherics and teenage squeals swirled in startling, electric dissonance. Call it a hex or call it charisma, but the adoring devotees of bona fide popstar Lorde would probably just call it magic.