Concert Review: Kelela/Tiffany Gouché

Concert Review: Kelela/Tiffany Gouché

This was a night held together by the mutual narcotic of love.

(Photo: Christopher John Hawkins)

A few songs into Kelela’s set, a man’s voice shrieked from the front row, “I love you Kuh-lay-la!” “I love you, too,” she responded in kind. “It’s Kel-el-ah.” The crowd erupted into a schoolyard chorus of “oooh”s and “she told him”s. It wasn’t so much the read that people were applauding, but the elegance with which Kelela asserted herself. It felt like a microcosm of what makes her so appealing.

Love was the common theme of the night, as both Kelela and her opener Tiffany Gouché attracted a deeply passionate audience that knew the artists’ respective catalogues with intimate intensity. This was my second show at the 9:30 Club in a week, and while the last one I attended was at capacity, this crowd was 10 times as fiery, filling the building with a palpable sense of adoration that was both contagious and otherworldly.

Gouché kicked things off with an unadorned set that nonetheless played to the house like a larger, more intricate affair. She makes R&B torch songs punctuated with edgy synths and hip-hop drums, all self-produced instrumentals. But on stage, Gouché carries herself with the recognizable swagger of an emcee. With her easy crowd banter and sly confidence, it felt like she was going to start spitting braggadocious bars at any moment, but once the music hit, sultry vocals poured out like fine wine.

Tracks like “Dive” and “Down” came off like the instant-classic queer anthems they are, with far more of the audience knowing all the words than I would have expected. Gouché possesses such an affable presence that the passion in her songs comes from left field. “Don’t call your ex back tonight,” she admonished, as people looked up from their phones mid-thirst. “Leave that shit in the past. It’s a new day.”

When Gouché busted out an a cappella cover of “Killing Them Softly” it was treated like a casual break in the action and not the face-melting vocal showcase it truly was. The few early arrivers that showed up not knowing who the hell Gouché was likely left furiously searching for her SoundCloud. But once Kelela came out, things turned up several notches.

D.C. being her hometown, there’s a certain expectation of enhanced excitement. Homecoming shows always crackle with a difficult-to-pin-down energy, but this was something else entirely. From the opening notes of “LMK”, the audience greeted the songstress with high-pitched trilling, until the lights came up and revealed Kelela herself, in a stark white dress, flanked by her similarly garbed backup singers. Then the trills gave way to gasps and lung-emptying screams. On a scale from one to 10, the house was hovering at Beyoncé.

Most shocking was how little that intensity waned. I consider myself a fan of Kelela’s music, but in most cases, I’d need more than a note or two to immediately know what song was about to be performed. It turns out I was in the very slim minority, as each track’s introductory synth burble or string stab elicited the same tenor of hallucinatory amazement. She mixed it up between songs from Cut 4 Me and the more recent Take Me Apart, blending each track seamlessly, as if she could read the crowd’s collective desires on a time delay, granting deeply held wishes before they’d even been conjured.

That white dress was such a sharp canvass, capturing every colored halogen like paint, so every lighting transition seemed like a CGI costume change. Kelela’s voice is so mutable, as show-stopping when she’s hitting powerhouse melisma as her moments of quiet exhalation, but her backup singers were no slouches either, each given moments to solo and shine. Songs like “Blue Light” and “Better” hit their marks, each striking the right balance between sensuous and haunting, but when she finally let out “A Message” from 2015’s Hallucinogen, all emotional hell broke loose.

It was fitting, then, that the track that converted so many to her music in the first place was the song of the night. “A Message” was the right snapshot to capture the sultry aura of the evening, a spiritual crescendo for a set built on successive climaxes. Great music can sometimes be indistinguishable from drugs, but this was a night held together by the mutual narcotic of love, and all of us in attendance were better off for it.

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