Original photo courtesy of author
Review by Miles Freeman
It’s definitely a dream-like notion to say that one has received a private serenade from an endeared artist. But to my own personal fortune, I can say that my first concert in Providence was nothing short of a dream. This past Saturday, Malaysian-born singer Yuna performed at Fête Music Hall in Olneyville, Providence to a crowd so sparse that she herself referred to it as “an intimate little family gathering.”
The venue wasn’t particularly modest as it featured a bar and a large, general admission space, but as opening act Nylo came to the stage, hardly more than a couple dozen people stood in the room. While definitely underwhelming, the vibe was a relief in comparison to the large rave and festival scene that I was priorly accustomed to. Nylo opened her laptop and immediately started playing “Take It Back” on her keyboard controller; dressed in a double-slit long skirt with a flannel and sporting clearly-hairsprayed bangs, she began to sing with a lithe and strikingly intimate voice. Her music style is a rather unique synthesis of electronic and R&B which implements a Bryson Tiller-esque heavy bassline - which vibrated like taiko drums given Fete’s acoustics - along with colorless synths, a lot of reverb and hypnotically beautiful ad-libs. “Thank you guys so much for coming early to hang out with me!” she remarked between songs; and you could tell that she genuinely was happy to see all thirty-something of us standing there admiring her. Nylo’s performance was less of a spectacle but more of an open look into her quirky, down-to-earth energy. In certain moments, I lost track of my company and felt engaged directly in conversation with her and her keyboard.
After a brief set change, Yuna made her grand entrance. Her modest yet equally elegant attire consisted of a golden, long robe dress, hoop earrings, and a black head wrap, all of which exuded unmitigated beauty; her voice did the same to an even greater degree. If Jhené Aiko’s music is to be listened to alone with a joint, Yuna's is to be listened to with two or three. Her music is tranquil pop with R&B beats, textured with electronic instruments and subtle undertones of neo-soul. Feeling out of place as a Muslim in the Malaysian music industry, Yuna came to America in 2011 to pursue a more expressive, international career. As she manages to be both a major style icon and a singer full of emotion while simultaneously adhering to the Islamic jurisprudence, this expression is evident. After opening with the funk-inspired “Best Love,” Yuna cheerily introduced herself and made a few joking remarks about the paltriness of the now six-dozen-strong audience: “Everybody come together in the middle,” she gestured. “We’re all a family. Just tell your friends to come next time too.”
Continuing her set with a couple of songs off of her first album, Yuna brought us back to dreamland. Her acoustic band consisted of a rather lackadaisical guitarist (he can’t exactly be blamed as Yuna’s voice makes you want to do nothing else but close your eyes and sway), an enigmatic bassist who alternated between his electric bass and MIDI programmer, and a charming drummer who played an impressive combination of trap set and electronic drum pad.
As the band started to play the intro to “Crush,” the Usher-aided single off of her latest album Chapters, the audience snapped out of its trance, making it feel like an actual concert and less of a private event. That particular moment is one of the rare instances where I can say a song sounded so much better live than on record. As everyone sang along, “Baby I’d be down down down down,” Yuna quietly whispered it back into our souls in an effortless but completely mesmerizing manner. When the song reached Usher’s verse, she facetiously said, “and here comes Usher!”, paused to laugh, and then went on to explain how Usher was currently in Malaysia, her birthplace, at the moment and that he even went to meet up with her parents.
Yuna finished off her set with her Jhené Aiko duet “Used to Love You,” piano ballad “All I Do,” and a few other songs off of Chapters. “Sorry for all the sad songs,” she apologized, explaining how her new album is definitely a breakup album. The tiny crowd was nonetheless capable of convincing her to do an encore, which was the dreamy, 80’s synth backed “Lanes,” ending her performance in a happier state of serenity. “I’m so glad I could finally come to Rhode Island!” she said with a smile, before thanking and blowing each one of us a kiss goodbye.
A genuinely remarkable artist, Yuna had the power to sing sad songs and still leave every member of the audience with a smile on their face through her congeniality and passion for music. I am happy to say I was able to see her perform in such a close-knit setting.