Tori Kelly, Islington Assembly Hall, review: a diaristic, intimate affair proves this YouTube star's potential
There was no doubt that Tori Kelly’s one-off London show was going to be an intimate affair. Arriving onstage in a millennial pink jumpsuit, the 26-year-old singer was joined by one lone guitarist. An oversized leather L-shaped sofa and a free-standing living room lamp were placed at the back of the stage. This was no pumped-up pop show.
Then again, Tori Kelly has never been much of a pumped-up popstar. Having appeared on several reality TV contests in her teens, including a brief venture on American Idol, the Californian-born singer then turned to her webcam and started recording and sharing covers on YouTube. She then progressed to original material, and self-released an EP Handmade Songs – an accomplished collection of stripped back R&B soul – before catching the attention of music mogul Scooter Braun.
But Kelly’s debut album, 2015’s Unbreakable Smile, while showcasing her insane vocal ability, didn’t quite carve out a crater in a musical landscape filled with vocalists of similar talent. But arena shows, choreography and Top 40 trend chasing aren’t really Kelly’s wheelhouse. Instead, it’s the diaristic, one-on-one intimacy of YouTube where she thrives.
Throughout the set, the singer, cradling her guitar, acted like she was recording one of her videos, each song pared back as if she were performing in her bedroom. And in most instances, it worked. A number of songs from her upcoming third album, Inspired by True Events, were reminiscent of the barefaced confidence of her earlier, self-released material. Tracks such as Coffee and Sorry Would Go a Long Way, which charters her parents’ recent divorce, were raw and heady with emotional conviction, Kelly’s tight and chillingly clean vocals flawless even through tears.
Less convincing were the patches where she lost her identity. Songs such as Pretty Fades, Nobody To Love and the gospel number Never Alone were forgettable without the necessary bigger production and Kelly’s natural soulfulness was snuffed out amid the rather generic melodies.
She also could have done with an edit. While taking the audience on a musical journey through her rise to stardom via medleys was a novel way to delve into past material, a deluge of acoustic covers became monotonous, saved only by a second segment of older, original bluesy R&B songs, highlighted by All In My Head, a haunting track about unrequited love.
Nevertheless, no pop show should stand at over two hours, especially one that consists entirely of acoustic numbers. Still, Kelly – an artist with the ability to write affecting, brilliant music – is clearly aware of where her strengths lie. This show just proved she needs to figure out how to elevate them.