Alessia Cara + Ryland James @ Place des Arts – 16th May 2019

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I’ve seen plenty of shows in the Wilfred-Pelletier theatre at Place des Arts, but I was surprised when I realized Alessia Cara was playing here. On her tour, promoting the self-written album The Pains of Growing, she’s headlining venues across Canada, but starting in June, when she plays in the United States, she’ll be opening for Shawn Mendes’s bigger shows. These smaller ones are for the fans – tickets ran $55, and there are assigned seats, which made it perfect for a kid or a teen.

Ryland James hails from Deseronto, Ontario, earning his fan base doing covers on YouTube, à la Bieber. I watched some in advance of the show, and they lack originality, though he performs them well. I was pleasantly surprised by his first song, “Say Goodbye” – his voice holds up, he hits the high notes and he carries the low, but I felt like I was watching someone who was raised on a steady diet of Canadian Idol. His songs are catchy and predictable – puréed pop. It was clear he’d been coached when, three songs in, he announced that we were the best audience of the tour. He switched then to covers, which seemed weird to me since he has an album coming out this year. (If you’re just going to do covers, sung exactly as the original is sung, I’d rather be watching RuPaul’s Drag Race.) At one point, he headed over to his keyboard, and then partway through the song walked back over to the mic to show us some more postures he learned watching The Voice.

James was sweating profusely and I wondered why he couldn’t put the stage presence on hold for a second, be real, and grab a towel. One of my favourite shows of all time was last March at the Fairmount Theatre – Beth Ditto publicly put on her underwear while her crew held up a towel, and I will always love her for it. I wish for more shows where the artists are unafraid to be genuine, even raw. That’s clearly not what this is. James is spoon-fed pop, which is disappointing ahead of the award-winning singer-songwriter headlining. A talented debut, for sure, but not special. As I exited the venue later that night, I noticed James taking pictures with fans and thought, “Good promo.”

Alessia Cara took the stage at exactly 9pm. If you’re coming at this review blind, I’ll lay it out quickly: she’s a 2016 Juno winner, a 2018 Grammy winner for Best New Artist (the first Canadian to win the award), and her second album, the one she’s currently touring, is entirely self-written. She steps out onto the stage in her signature well-cut, loose-fitting suit, reminding me a lot of Lennon Stella’s outfit at her recent concert at L’Astral. As a big sister, with littles ranging from 12 to 29 years old, I’ve always felt protective of the way pop stars are portrayed to the young and easily influenced. I think it’s beyond cool when I see stars rely on their talent and charm rather than their bodies. I’m not denying that Cara (and Stella) are incredibly stylish and gorgeous, but the thinness is not centre-stage. And even though the stage tonight showcases a bed and a couch, Cara doesn’t use them in that way.

She plays some of my favourites early – especially her debut single, “Here,” about how she’d rather be home than at a party, “With people who don’t even care about my well being/I don’t dance, don’t ask, I don’t need a boyfriend.” Her songs are relevant, her lyrics honest, and truly pulled from her life experiences. If you thought a 22-year old would have little to say about long-term relationships, you’d be wrong – Cara is clearly a serial monogamist, as evidenced by songs like “Comfortable” and “Out of Love,” the latter written to a friend’s girlfriend to help get her back. (It worked.) This last one, and “Wherever I Live” are played on acoustic guitar, without the accompaniment of her band, who sit awkwardly on the bed while she performs.

“7 Days” reminds me of a Jason Mraz song, with his pop-y rap style and a common theme – “is it just me, or is the world particularly fucked up at the moment?” I’m reminded of Bette Midler’s “From a Distance,” which I had on repeat as a kid, along with Michael Jackson’s “Man in the Mirror.” It’s an iconic pop theme, and Cara gives it a good go-round. I’m also warmed by her intro – it might be about god, or about whatever you believe is out there, the universe, or anything at all (and if you’re like me, you might think the song begs the question of whether god is dead).

She sings her Disney hit, penned by Lin-Manuel Miranda, Moana’s “How Far I’ll Go” and includes a great cover of No Doubt’s “Underneath it All.” Then, as a prelude to “Scars to Your Beautiful,” Cara asks the audience to “think of something you can let go of and leave it here tonight.” It’s the kind of pandering to the wellness warriors that I absolutely love. I think there might be a little yogi up there on stage, and as I’m thinking that she says, “Take one deep breath in, hold it, and let it out.” Foreshadowing or yoga magic? (Your friendly neighbourhood yoga instructor was very happy. Kumbhaka, or breath-retention, can help you take a deeper inhale, and she taught it right!)

For her last song, she performed the hit “Stay,” usually sung with Zedd, on her own. Everyone gets low and jumps, and I stay sitting so I can watch the whole theatre jump as one. At the end of the song, Cara high-fives fans, collects a very cool-looking gift, takes a photo with a very young girl, and the lights go up. I’m stunned. No encore?! It wasn’t a short show, with 17 songs, but it wasn’t a vibe, and I blame the venue, and perhaps the age of the audience, for the chillness. Not a bad Thursday night, and even though I feel slightly underwhelmed, I’m happy for her. She has a great following and a huge talent which is only going to grow if she continues to stand her ground about which songs she’s releasing and who is writing her albums. She’s not Ariana Grande, and thank god/the universe/whatever for that. She has an arsenal of charisma and original ideas and a long career ahead.

SET LIST:

  1. Growing Pains
  2. Here
  3. Wild Things
  4. Not Today
  5. All We Know
  6. Comfortable
  7. Girl Next Door
  8. Wherever I Live (acoustic)
  9. A Little More
  10. Out of Love
  11. My Kind
  12. 7 Days
  13. How Far I’ll Go
  14. Underneath It All (No Doubt cover)
  15. Easier Said
  16. Scars to Your Beautiful
  17. Stay (originally recorded with Zedd)

Review – Carrie-Ann Kloda
Photos – Eric Brisson

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