Live review: Rina Sawayama – O2 Academy Birmingham – 21st October 2022

Rina Sawayama is not scheduled to perform until 9:15 pm, but at 7:30 pm, Birmingham’s 3000-capacity O2 Academy already feels packed. The concert isn’t sold out, but it’s impossible to tell. No matter where you look, people are wearing eccentric clothes and bold colours and wearing impeccable makeup. The venue feels more like a fashion show than a concert crowd, but it also feels like a sanctuary. With everyone dressing in their own style, and unafraid to be themselves, there is not a single drop of judgement in the air.

As the clock strikes 9:15, the first few bars of ‘Minor Feelings’ start playing. It is then that Sawama emerges through the ring of spotlights at the back of the stage onto a platform. Icy, pale-blue lights shine onto her through the thick smoke. Her features aren’t identifiable, but you know it’s her. She is wearing denim head to toe, including a denim cape draped over her body and a denim cowboy hat. Beneath her, gusts of air blow her pin-straight black-and-blonde hair in every direction. It is at this moment that it becomes clear that Sawayama’s Hold the Girl tour is more than live music—it is spectacle. There is a pause, the crowd ruptures into a single unanimous cheer and she starts singing: “How am I supposed to feel / when you’re telling me that nothing in my life is real?”. Her piercingly-powerful voice is shockingly crisp, and no amount of listening to the studio recordings of her songs can prepare you for finally hearing her live.

“However you felt before you came in today, I hope that when you leave, you feel a little more slay,” she says after the first couple of songs, a statement that is met with a unanimous cheer and several individual shouts of “slay” from the audience. The message makes sense, especially on the Hold the Girl tour. Comprising mainly of songs from the eponymous album, Hold the Girl sees Sawayama reclaim her childhood as she navigates themes of self-love, growth, and ultimately acceptance. It is a message with which the audience resonates deeply, as expressions of admiration fill the room as people’s eyes are glued to her in awe.

Divided into five ‘acts’, the show sees Sawayama dive into every corner of her discography, moving from 2000s pop-rock, to electro-pop, to ballads, to everything in between. She transitions effortlessly from song to song. After ‘Minor Feelings’, the titular ‘Hold the Girl’ is next. Combining her powerful, mellifluous vocals with electronic instrumentals, the song serves as an opportunity for her and her two backup dancers to perform impeccably coordinated dance routines, something which would continue for the rest of the show.

The setlist then progresses, as Sawayama sings ‘Catch Me In the Air’, ‘Hurricanes’, and ‘Your Age’—all songs from ‘Hold the Girl’. The unwavering energy only slows down during Act 3, or, the one where Sawayama performs her ballads. Swapping dances and electric lighting for an acoustic guitar and soft white light, she performs the heartbreaking ‘Send my Love to John’, a song about an immigrant mother apologising to her son for not accepting his sexuality because of her religious beliefs. The now teary-eyed crowd is silent, and the electric energy that once filled the room has now vanished, replaced by a feeling of community and acceptance. As people hold hands and hug their loved ones, it is clear the message of the song resonates with the crowd.

But the sombre atmosphere does not last long, as Sawayama swiftly moves onto ‘Phantom’, a sensational pop number with one of the best bridges on Hold the Girl. From this moment forth, Sawayama sticks to upbeat, danceable hits as past traumas are left behind and buried in the middle of the setlist. ‘Phantom’ is followed by ‘To Be Alive’ (from Hold the Girl) and ‘LUCID’ off her debut EP RINA. She even sings a snippet of ‘Beg For You’, her collaboration with electro-pop artist Charli XCX.

The home stretch of the show sees her perform some of her older hits including the 2000s dance track ‘Comme Des Garcons (Like The Boys)’ and ‘XS’, a scathing critique of capitalism hidden behind abrasive, jarring pop.

And as expected, the show closes with ‘This Hell’, a song about celebrating love and togetherness even if it means going against other peoples’ rules or beliefs. When it comes to the song’s bridge, not a single person is quiet: “Got my invitation for eternal damnmation / Get in line, pass the wine, bitch / We’re going straight to Hell,” both Sawayama and the audience sing. With fiery red light flooding the room and a backdrop made to mimic red hot coals, the crowd is (metaphorically) on fire.

The song ends, the venue’s main lights turn on, and people turn to leave the venue. It appears as if nothing had happened, although judging by people’s expressions, everyone was feeling a little more “slay” than they did before.

Words and photos by Sophie Flint Vazquez (no use without permission)

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