Nao @ Le Belmont – 16th September 2016

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Futuristic R&B has become something of a hegemonic sound of late. Once reserved for arty margin dwellers such as Kelela and FKA twigs, this highly processed variant of mainstream R&B has almost become the defining sound of this decade, with ranks of artists, from The Weeknd to Banks, shifting huge amounts of downloads to an eagerly awaiting global audience.

Into this fraught soundscape comes 28-year-old London newcomer Nao – sweet voiced, but something of a force to be reckoned with, too. She was nominated for best newcomer at the Mobos and placed third on the BBC’s Sound of 2016 list. Her vocal style is easy and versatile, leading to a collaboration with Disclosure (she sang Superego on their latest album, Caracal) as well as her song Zillionaire being used in a recent Samsung ad.

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Live, there’s quite a bit more to set Nao apart from others in her genre. Entering the stage dancing to the drop of the beat and to hollering from every corner of a packed Belmont, Nao immediately gets to show off her lengthy vocal range. On a dimly lit stage, fronting a live band with real instruments, she moves like a Hindu goddess as the fingersnaps and synth rushes of her first track are greeted with a super-enthusiastic roar from her fans.

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The veteran of years of backing vocal session work and a 4-year jazz degree, Nao’s childhood was allegedly spent absorbing everything her older siblings and mother played for her. The result is added depth to her songs which are all sang with obvious passion. You believe her when she sings and that can’t always be said for many new artists entering the world of popular music.

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Much of the set predictably revolves around her debut album For All We Know, with Girlfriend and Fool To Love being highlights. Much of the young crowd sing along as they move the heavy beat.

There’s one song, however, that everyone seems to be waiting for. Not to be confused with the Taylor Swift track, Nao’s Bad Blood starts all minimal and angelic before morphing into a great slab of digital funk, heavy with beats that have the whole room moving in unison. It’s the perfect conclusion to an impressive set that has our star smiling frequently thanks to the ecstatic response from her audience.

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As the lights come up it’s not long before Nao is greeting fans at the merch stall, posing for selfies and signing vinyl. I suspect the next time she plays Montreal the venue will be significantly bigger.

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Review & photos – Steve Gerrard

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