Better Than: Any Who or Guess Who concert in the past 30 years.
“Three months ago, I literally did not know what I was doing,” Betty Who confided in one of many girlfriendly asides during her headlining set at the Bowery Ballroom Saturday night. What a difference three months can make. A viral video can kill a career as easily as it can make one, and while “Somebody Loves You” showed that the indefatigable, classically trained Aussie transplant is far more talented than your garden-variety, 15-“Fridays”-of-fame phenom, things could go either way.
But last weekend, just days after her fab and feted major-label debut EP Slow Dancing unexpectedly topped the iTunes pop chart (and peaked at No. 5 overall), Betty capped her first major North American tour with a marathon of performances around her adopted hometown, cramming sold-out headlining shows at Music Hall of Williamsburg and the Bowery, as well as a five-song afternoon set at Rough Trade Records, into a 24-hour stretch on Friday and Saturday.
Towering in stature, voice and personality, the 22-year-old hit the Bowery stage like she’d been shot out of a confetti cannon, kicking off an aerobically physical performance every bit as effervescent as the songs she sings. The new EP’s lead single, “Heartbreak Dream,” set the scene and the tone: stadium-sized and anthemic, the unabashedly pop song is seasoned with vintage ’80s sonics and a quiet middle section that explodes back into the chorus like a shaken bottle of soda. Toward the end Betty led the crowd in a singalong — this was the opening song, remember — of the wordless “woah-oh-oh-oh” section of the chorus.
Clad in a cheerleaderesque navy-blue halter and matching pleated skirt, capped by a bright blonde helmet of hair that’s recently been growing out, Who is like a six-foot-tall mashup of Robyn and P!nk both visually and sonically — which, with her many accompanying knowing winks, is catnip both to a certain strain of fan and the intellipop sector of music critics (check the multigenerational new wave echo of the Killers’ “Mr. Brightside” on the chorus of “Giving Me Away”). She and her equally on-message three-piece backing band look like Glee castmembers, sporting matching varsity jackets or sweaters emblazoned with her initials, joining in for the occasional synchronized dance moves. Her logo could be from some early-’80s pop-metal band.
Today’s peculiar pop environment means that rising stars like Who — and, on a larger level, Sam Smith — can sell out major venues and appear on network TV without an album, which provide optimal exposure to new talent before they’ve really got enough material for a headlining set. Who mentioned that her tour recently brought her to Houston for the first time, where she paid tribute to hometown girl Beyonce with a cover of “Say My Name” (and filled out her set here with it as well). At her Rough Trade appearance, she nodded to the Record Store Day crowd by keeping it a bit more obscure with a cover of King’s 2011 R&B hit “Hey.” And the debut album is on the way: No unfamiliar originals were aired tonight, but Who’s manager says she’s been hard at work with longtime collaborator/Berklee classmate Peter Thomas, as well as songwriters Claude Kelly (Jessie J, Christina Aguilera, Karmin) and Starsmith (Ellie Goulding, Kylie Minogue), with a target album-release date of October.
After a perfunctory four-minute wait for an encore, Who self-depracatingly said, “I’m still awkward about doing encores. I think people will say, ‘Oh, I guess she’s not gonna do “Somebody Loves You” ‘ and leave.” Not this time. She teased out the set a bit longer, strapping on a guitar for a solo version of the EP’s “Silas” before the inevitable “Jump” -like synth stabs of “Somebody Loves You” kicked in and the crowd erupted. She let the audience take over for the last verse, an incredulous smile on her face as her words were sung back to her.
See more Betty Who at the Bowery Ballroom photos.
Overheard: “The keyboards on ‘Somebody Loves You’ always make me think of ‘The Touch’ from Boogie Nights.”
Critical Bias: Advances of the Robyn/Royksopp EP arrived on Friday.
Random Notebook Dump: Half the songs I’m hearing referenced are older than she is.
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on April 21, 2014