REVIEW: NAO at Albert Hall, Manchester, UK

Two songs into her set at the always scenic Albert Hall in Manchester, Nao gleefully asked the crowd ‘Would you like to go with me?’ I’ve never seen a crowd more willing to go on a journey with an artist than at this moment; beaming smiles and a sense of wonder across the faces of everyone in awe of the artist on stage.

Opening her set from within the tightly packed crowd made opener Another Lifetime connect in an almost spiritual way. Nao’s vocals shone from the very start, piercing through the wall of sound coming from the enraptured, and very loud, audience. I’m not sure whether I expected her show to have such a sense of community about it, but from the singing of every lyric, to the freeing bounce of the crowd, it was such a welcoming show to be a part of.

Running through the three singles from her latest album Saturn, the pulsing synth of Fool to Love was the first time Nao ‘Took it back’ to one of her earlier tracks. The energy she brings to songs like this is totally infectious, the way she bounced around the stage topped only by the occasions where she would ditch the microphone entirely to have a dance all by herself. Her brilliantly simple routine during the Mura Masa breakdown of Complicated, a personal favourite of mine, was a sheer joy to witness.

On Adore You, her staccato position changes with a fan throughout allowed her to emote that bit more with every lyric; a visual treat of a moment where her luminescent yellow outfit glowed in the dark as she was lit from behind.  This is fully danceable music. Only two of the songs in the show could possibly be considered ballads, but everything is steeped in soul. Orbit soared in the Albert Hall; the atmosphere didn’t so much change on these slower songs, but rather moved with Nao herself.

After asking the audience if they liked D’Angelo, to a typically rapturous reception, the live version of first album highlight Inhale Exhale transitioned seamlessly into the song she used as inspiration for the main hook. Nao literally singing the guitar riff from Brown Sugar somehow managed to sound even better live than on the record.

Every live version of these songs seems designed to show off the most impressive aspect of Nao’s voice; her insane range. No moment moreso than when she not only managed to sing both her own falsetto verses on album title track Saturn, but also replicated the Kwabs verse octave perfect too. Encore closer Bad Blood managed to include notes higher than I’ve ever heard Nao sing before, while also taking her voice to it’s lower limits just a few seconds later.

With the first full leg of her Saturn tour coming to an end, you really got the sense that Nao had been looking forward to returning to the UK to share these songs. Her connection to her audience was brilliant; the more she danced, the more the audience would dance, the better she sang, the more in tune the crowd would sing (a fact she pointed out twice).

The energy in the room as she came back onto to stage to perform probably the best track from the album, the African beat led Drive and Disconnect, was so uplifting. An energy that continued well after she had left the stage too; a communal dance to Luther Vandross’s Never Too Much and Kendrick Lamar’s Alright ending the night with the same vibe that it had started with.

I’ve not seen a crowd have as much fun at a gig in a very long time. And what’s even more brilliant is that Nao looked to be having the most fun of anyone in the room. There was pure joy on the stage.

Words by Sam Atkins. 

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