There is something inspiring about watching a performer who is giving their all on stage but there is nothing quite like watching someone who is effortless. It’s hard to try and look like it comes naturally and there are few performers who can really put the audience at ease. NAO is one of those rare artists. Every note slides from her mouth and every dance move extends from her body without thought.
Right from the first song, the crowd at Sydney’s Oxford Art Factory was loose. From the first wobbly bass line everyone bent their knees is and bounced their shoulders, intoxicated by NAO’s free-flowing brand of soul music. There are tinges of Janet Jackson in the way NAO sings and lays back in the beat but whereas Janet was known best for her on-beat dancemoves of the Control era, NAO is far more fluid. There’s a West Coast easiness to the way she operates. Everytime she hit a note, the crowd cheered and NAO smiled and moved onto her next slippery note.
Her debut album For All We Know was one of last year’s best debut records and it made up the bulk of her Sydney set. Whether she was singing about love, freedom or heartbreak, each song carried a consistent groove that was only furthered by her occasional but poignant moves. Adore You set the heart aflutter, Happy wobbled with a bass-driven beat and Inhale Exhales‘s unpredictability was even more thrilling in the live arena.
NAO interrupted each song with short interlude’s but her music was doing most of the speaking and you could tell that she’d formed a dialogue with the crowd very early on without saying too much. This was never more apparent than during middle finger anthem We Don’t Give A which permeated a sense of invincibility throughout the crowd. Given the current political climate, there’s something reassuring about an entire audience stepping into an us-against-the-world community and the feeling during this song was so warm.
She brought heart to every song she delivered but there was even more feeling than usual running through NAO’s jams. “I’ve got a broken heart today,” she told the crowd before DYWM, saying further that the audience was really helping her. Whether it was timed or not, there was something potent about announcing that before launching into a song that centres around the hook, “So tell me again, do you want me?” It was yet another example that heartache is best cured on the dancefloor and a clear highlight of the night.
From that point onwards, every song carried more grunt. “If you think that I’m a trophy you better change your mind,” she sang with intent on Trophy, thrashing her head with the most force we’d seen all night. The crunching guitars catered for that as she released tension with every reverb-soaked beat.
Firefly, her track with Mura Masa, brought the perky vibes back and had the crowd bouncing in unison. It’s really heartening to see a crowd completely on the side of the person on-stage and the positivity poured out during the closing moments of the set. She took a brief break before returning for Bad Blood. The vocals at the top of the track were so ridiculous it was like she was giving everyone a masterclass the likes of which Beyoncé would struggle to match. As the guitar howled and the beat kicked in, she ran us towards the end of the set, smacking everyone in the face with a beefed-up chorus.
You could tell from NAO’s record that she’s one of the best out there right now but live she took it to another level. She’s an accomplished performer who brings you into her world and makes you feel easy inside it. We left feeling light like she’d stripped a weight from our backs. We can only hope that she left the stage feeling the same way, her brokenheart beginning to mend.