I’d seen Nao once before in 2015. ‘Bad Blood’ was her newest single and though her performance buzzed with optimism and confidence, it felt wrong that it was to half a room in the small Leeds space, Headrow House. Everything about her performance demanded something bigger than a 150-person capacity and a pre-recorded backing track.
Three years and two albums later, it finally feels like Nao has grown into the space she had always suited.
Saturn, her newest album, is all about the identity shift in a person’s 20s, the loss of direction and, hopefully, the leap into your own best future. It certainly applies to Nao, who finally jumped into stardom and devoted her entire self to the album and the tour, creating a perfect success story. The album throbs with heartache from lovers and friends but is, beneath it all, an ode to when things go right and her newest tour pulls together all these feelings.
Manchester Albert Hall’s grand organ is decorated with planets and balloons line the ceiling. A full band enters first and following them Nao appears on an improvised stage set up in the middle of the crowd to break into ‘Another Lifetime’. The accompaniment is clean and tight, the sound is well levelled, and her smile glows through the room as a fan hands her a bouquet. Another two songs in, she talks about the album and what it means to her. She describes the difficulty of tour life and the choice of leaving everything else behind, only to say she wouldn’t change a single thing about it, breaking right into ‘Love Supreme’.
I was constantly thinking about how much the show had changed since her early days. The upscaling in venue and budget, the band, but also Nao’s more competent and natural performance. ‘Orbit’ had a choreographed hand-fan routine, ‘Inhale Exhale’ had a new jam section and a surprise cover of D’angelo’s ‘Brown Sugar’ made it onto the setlist.
The only issue I picked up on that night was the support, Jamie Isaac. Though he’s obviously talented, why an artist more similar to Nao (even one from her own record label, Little Tokyo) wasn’t chosen to support seems dubious. It seems like a manager’s match-up and it did little for the night. This is not to detract from the headliner though, Nao puts on a fantastic show and one she can truly call hers. The most exciting part is wondering what heights she can reach next.