Tahliah Barnett, the artist currently known for being Formerly Known As Twigs, played her second ever New York City show last night to an unusually large, sold-out Webster Hall crowd, who absolutely fucking adored her. There’s been a steady uptick in the London-based singer’s profile since the release of her first EP in December of 2012. Next week her first full-length, the flatly titled LP1, will be released and likely greeted with the sort of ecstatic reviews any new artist would kill for. The record carries hints of arty R&B figures of the late 90s like Aaliyah or Tricky collaborator Martina Topley-Bird, though her songs carry way more emptiness than theirs ever would. Though subtle earworms are embedded throughout, the record is often content to dwell in a slow textural crawl that won’t necessarily crest into a conventional moment of full tension-release. It’s a hot and bothered sex album, that never really gets to the sex part, leaving the listener feeling gloriously frustrated.
If a backlash is brewing, and one usually is, it will likely congeal around the idea that FKA Twigs songs are filled with immaculately production that she doesn’t fully inhabit, too content with ethereal floating to provide a killer hook. Onstage though, commanding every eyeball in the crowd like Cleopatra’s favorite court dancer, it’s kind of impossible to criticize Twigs for absence. She was the show. All of it. Her charisma is magnetic, and skepticism in the face of it is tough to hold on to. Though her songs are nowhere near the precise perfection of a young Prince, and may never get to that level, it wasn’t just the occasional swell of purple lights that brought him to mind. (Side note: How did Prince not settle on the pretty cool-sounding “FKA Prince” as a monicker during his unpronounceable symbol period? Rare miss, Prince.)
Her band consisted of three shadow-dwelling dudes who often played three drum pads simultaneously, an alignment that makes calling them “her band” feel kind of weird. They produced warped synth sounds, mangled clicks and sighs, and most importantly big, thudding beats for her to ripple across. They were like the fevered nightmare of some classic-rock loving Boomer, a strange future of live music he’ll not take lying down. In effect, they were practically invisible, cleared far to the sides to give a budding pop star maximum prowling space.
Given her regal bearing and the seeming ease of her unnaturally liquid dance moves, hearing Twigs speak between songs was slightly jarring. She was small-voiced, teenage giggly, slightly nervous but wildly appreciative of the crowd that was completely freaking out at her feet. Her most amusing bit of banter recounted a friend giving her sage advice on Vogueing: “If all else fails, just be soft and cunt.” (To her surprise and ours, these are technical terms.) But as soon as the next track would kick in, her arms again became alien tentacles, a swath of white light would envelop her, and any hint of girlish vulnerability instantly disintegrated.
It was somewhat strange to witness this sort of music—so slow, so withholding of typical pop release—receive such an emphatic response. “Two Weeks” was replicated at its full, legitimately massive scale. Its performance befit the hookiest bit of her debut, its sexiest sexless sex jam fantasy about an unavailable lover. But that was one of only moments in the set that built to a peak, instead of making a seductive show of avoiding one. Rather than lose the crowd in the middle of another glitchy slow jam though, she held it in perpetually rapt attention. A few flicks of her hands or a twist of her body were given the reception a radio-conquering chorus might. It was an impressive demonstration of nuclear grade star power. The fan base she’s already built have jumped straight to full-blown hero worship, skipping any period of tentative skepticism. When a refusal to provide an ecstatic payoff is received as if it were an ecstatic payoff…does the absence matter? She’s got room to grow as a songwriter, plenty of empty spaces so far left open. It’s unclear if she needs to, though, or is even interested in making that direct a move. Because right now, as a performer, her presence is sort of astounding.
(Some more extensive photos here, for the curious or the obsessed.)