Shortly after emerging from Soundcloud obscurity within the past year or so, elusive musician H.E.R has surely become one of the most exciting new artists in popular music. Her voice, equal parts silky and slick, is matched by the excellent songwriting that can be found all throughout her self-titled EPs Volume 1 and 2, two stunning packages of classic-meets-modern R&B that have quickly won her an adoring fanbase around the world. And adoring is most certainly the correct word to use here, seeing as H.E.R’s debut Sydney show at the Joan Sutherland Theatre as part of Vivid LIVE was welcomed by crowd so ecstatic and receptive that even the most accomplished musician would have blushed.
That reception was earned all through H.E.R’s 1.5 hour performance, sweeping Sydney Opera House’s second largest theatre with lush R&B backed by rich, fully realised soundscapes amongst pillars of (mostly) purple haze. The atmospheric quality of H.E.R’s music was perfectly illustrated here, but the biggest reason the whole concert worked on every level was just how well her band played together. While H.E.R delivered cuts like “Say It Again” and “Losing”, the band would work up highly detailed and flexible instrumentals, imbued with the kind of nuance and impeccable timing that reminds you just how valuable live music is.
These big nuanced instrumentals often made all the difference, whether it was chasing a D’Angelo reference with a short interpolation of the iconic artist’s “Lady”, or seamlessly following lead when H.E.R would surprisingly segue in and out of Kendrick Lamar (“LOVE”), Foy Vance (“Make It Rain”) and Majid Jordan (“One I Want”) covers. As busy as H.E.R was on the mic, even she would add more than just vocals to the soundscape, setting up a percussive loop or introducing “U” with a lick-heavy guitar solo. And special mention must go to her two backing vocalists – one male, one female – who maintained a fantastic presence throughout and proved indispensable to the show.
As much as these meandering live versions of songs like “Focus” and Wait For It” took the gig to the next level, it was H.E.R’s very focused, very centred vocal performance that was most memorable. She knows how to fill each sonic pocket with detail, from teasing a cover of Prince’s “The Beautiful Ones” to flying high with that aforementioned Foy Vance cover. Her soulful vocals easily recall the kind of warmth and tenderness of Aaliyah at her softest moments (like “Come Over” or “At Your Best” – that stretched “let me know” on “Losing” is no coincidence), yet at the same time there’s enough jazz and energy in her voice which allows for the kind of range that makes a track like “Let Me In” work just as well as something like the seductive “Lights On”.
Even a toned down acoustic song like “Best Part” (her immensely popular loved-up collaboration with Daniel Ceaser) wouldn’t stay stripped for long, the band subtly working in layers towards the end while H.E.R capped with a soft nod to Ceaser’s “Get You” to take this far beyond its recorded version. It was perhaps the perfect example of why H.E.R puts on such a good show; these live interpretations feel special and considered, as opposed to standard and expected. There’s a lot of meat added to these already great songs, highlighting arrangements that keep things interesting as H.E.R proves just how much of a genuine gift she is to music.
The reviewer attended this show on May 29th.
Photo: Dan Boud.