Kacey Musgraves + Natalie Prass @ Mtelus – January 12th 2019

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Now that everything is all done and dusted, I think one can safely say that Kacey Musgraves had a pretty incredible 2018. Released in March, her third studio LP Golden Hour became an instant soundtrack for resplendent spring afternoons, rowdy nights, and reflective mornings. Racking up rave reviews, SNL performances, and Best-Of-2018 accolades, Musgraves’ country-pop alchemy turned her moment into a whole golden year. Now, playing a packed-house MTELUS crowd, Kacey Musgraves is starting her 2019 off right by showing Montreal why she deserves this moment in the light – and how she’s gonna keep shining in the new year.

As a testament to the runaway success of the album, high demand quickly upgraded the show to MTELUS from its original engagement (announced in July) at Corona Theatre. When something like this happens, I’m always fascinated to see how an artist might scale up their act from a 750-capacity venue to fit a space that triples in size.

The numbers certainly showed up, filling the venue’s floor and balcony for opener Natalie Prass, who kicked things off with “Oh My”, an uptempo bass groove, and warm Fender Rhodes tones to make lovers of Carole King and HAIM swoon alike. That’s pretty appropriate since the composition of the crowd seemed to cover a wide age range from grey hair to grade school – and Prass’ clever combo of modern sensibilities and soul/yacht rock touchstones feel both warmly familiar and totally engaging to all members of the audience.

Playing tunes from June’s The Future and the Past, this musical nexus feels both intentional and organic. Prass carries on the Daft Punk experiment of unironically embracing disco glitter and slinky jams of yesteryear, while also infusing these sounds with her own pop/R&B flavours and contemporary calls-to-action like standout “Sisters”. Prass’ vocals are immediate, intimate, and inviting – calling out to my imagined feeling of sweaty clubs in the music capitals of Tennessee. This might have made it challenging for friendly stage banter and quieter numbers like “My Baby Don’t Understand Me” to reach buzzing showgoers at the back rows of MTELUS, but Prass fully owns the stage – further supported by an incredibly funky Memphis-mirrorball band and an audience that excited to feel good feelings.

Those happy vibes skyrocketed toward the end of the intermission changeover when the curtain backdrop fell to the floor to reveal Kacey Musgraves’ set design: massive unfolded fans echoing her prop from the Golden Hour sleeve photo. When Musgraves and her band finally arrived to an intro of vocoder and New Age tones, an LED strip shone across the stage and a colour spray of lights splashed off the set to announce the musical rainbow ahead.

Opening with the appropriately-titled album opener “Slow Burn”, Texas-born Musgraves set a perfect mood for the showgoers that showed up with cowboy hats in tow. With a discography of whip-smart country tunes already under her belt, most of the Golden Hour repertoire spends a little more time looking inward and looking around. The gentle guitar, banjo, and pedal steel of “Slow Burn” serves as connective tissue to well-worn Western landscapes, but lines comparing Tennessee and Beijing point to the change in location, scope, and sound of lush follow-ups “Wonder Woman” and “Butterflies”.

Since the album’s release, much appears to have been said about Golden Hour’s shift away from traditional country sounds to a more pop-friendly production, but this change doesn’t feel so radical in a live setting. Sure, the electronic keyboards and radio-friendly rhythms are certainly present in songs like “Lonely Weekend” and “Golden Hour”. Even so, the evocative twang of Musgraves’ voice, the palette of stringed instruments, constant crowd sing-alongs, and stories of love, heartbreak, wonder, and ennui ensure that no one ever strays too far from the heartland. Musgraves further doubled down on her roots during stripped-down ballad “Mother”, reconfiguring the band around her into a tight-knit circle. Swapping out instruments for upright bass, cello, and single floor tom, the band played through an all-acoustic mini-set including “Family is Family” and “Love is a Wild Thing”, bringing the lights down low and creating a homey atmosphere that’s hard to beat.

But lest anyone walk away thinking that Kacey Musgraves is all about quiet pondering and campfire songs, she also knows how to have a damn good time. Rocking a shiny sleeveless jumpsuit, encouraging the crowd to get weird, and even throwing in the occasional “yee-haw”, Musgraves never forgets to have fun. Along with the glitz and glamour of the more uptempo songs from the new record, older tunes like “High Time”, “Merry Go Round”, and the set-closing freak-flag celebration “Follow Your Arrow” can always find the bittersweet side of making a big ol’ mess. Add to that a no-fucks-given cover of Gloria Gaynor’s “I Will Survive” (joined by a returning Natalie Prass), and you’ve got yourself a party.

Some newcomers may have come to the show based on hype alone, wondering why Kacey Musgraves has become such a big deal. But, wrapping up the show with a two-song encore of the it-gets-better anthem “Rainbow” and the giddy-up dance cut “High Horse”, Kacey Musgraves was able to put a dual punctuation mark on the answer to that question. Whether searching for a better day or celebrating the good times in the here and now, Musgraves transcends conventions and barriers to shine brightly with humanity and sincerity. That’s probably more “country” than anything else.

Review – Dan Corber

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