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Review: With pain in the air, Olivia Rodrigo offers catharsis and empathy at homecoming show

A young female singer performs onstage, with a female backing band
Olivia Rodrigo performs onstage at the Greek Theatre on Tuesday.
(Brian van der Brug/Los Angeles Times)

At age 19, Olivia Rodrigo has already scored two No. 1 singles. She’s hung out with the president at the White House. She’s won three Grammy Awards, including the coveted best new artist prize.

What the pop sensation hadn’t done until Tuesday was play a real-deal concert in Los Angeles, not far from where she grew up as a child actor in Temecula.

That changed with the first of two sold-out hometown shows at the Greek Theatre, part of a world tour — Rodrigo’s high-profile bow as a live performer — behind her smash 2021 debut, “Sour.” And if that meant the night carried some emotional weight for a singer who’s quickly grown accustomed to success, she didn’t try to hide it from her audience.

“When I was a little kid, like in elementary school, my parents would drive for hours to take me to acting classes up in L.A.,” Rodrigo told the capacity crowd, her eyes welling up, as she introduced “Drivers License,” the gloriously dramatic piano ballad that made her an instant star two Januarys ago. “We would go hike at Griffith Park after every class, and I always pointed to the Greek Theatre and told my mom and my dad, ‘One day, I’m gonna play there.’”

A year ago, Olivia Rodrigo was a Disney actor with a knack for songwriting. Today, the 18-year-old has 2021’s top debut album and is nominated for 7 Grammys.

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The big feelings continued as Rodrigo made a passionate appeal for stricter gun-control laws in the wake of Tuesday’s school shooting in Texas and as she brought one of her heroes, Alanis Morissette, to the stage for a surprise rendition of Morissette’s landmark “You Oughta Know.”

“This has been the best night of my life,” Rodrigo declared, a little teary again, at the end of the hour-long gig.

Overwhelmed though she may have been by the circumstances, Rodrigo actually seemed in total control Tuesday: This was an impressively dialed-in performance — tight and vivid and punchy — by a digitally savvy pandemic-era artist only now figuring out how to translate her music to an IRL setting.

Wisely, she kept the show’s scale pretty modest. Backed by a five-piece all-female band, she roamed across a stage arranged with gym bleachers and a disco ball — think “Smells Like Teen Spirit” meets “Yellowjackets” — and changed outfits only once, from a punky corset-and-combat-boots look to a pink-tulle prom dress her mom (or perhaps her grandmother) might’ve worn in the 1980s.

A pop star in a purple corset and skirt sings and prances across the stage
Olivia Rodrigo at the Greek Theatre.
(Brian van der Brug/Los Angeles Times)

When Rodrigo announced her tour in December, many fans complained that her decision to visit theaters instead of arenas had left them out in the cold. Indeed, some at the Greek — where celebs in attendance included Adam Sandler and Tobey Maguire, both presumably there with their daughters — reported paying thousands of dollars for tickets on the secondary market.

Yet the relatively cozy environment was a boon for Rodrigo. Freed from having to fill an enormodome with spectacle designed for the cheap seats, she focused on her core strengths: the sturdy songs on “Sour,” all 11 of which she played, and her ability to sing them live almost as well as she did in the studio.

A proud musical-theater kid, Rodrigo broke into show business as part of the smiley Disney industrial complex. But her own music skews moodier and slightly rougher-edged, with echoes of ’90s grunge and ’00s pop-punk; her slower, quieter ones descend from Taylor Swift, whose detailed examinations of romance and betrayal have shaped Gen Z songwriters as indelibly as Carole King and Joni Mitchell did the Gen X talents that followed them.

Duetting with Morissette, Rodrigo clearly relished dropping the once-scandalous F-bomb in “You Oughta Know” — a flourish she borrowed to great cathartic effect (if considerably less pearl-clutching) for “Drivers License.” At the Greek she also covered Avril Lavigne’s early-2000s “Complicated,” which was affectionate but lacked the emotional intensity of the rest of her set; it also seemed to fall into something of a netherworld for an audience full of tween and teenage girls — too old to feel modern, too new to feel classic.

The frankly confessional tone of songs such as “Traitor,” “Happier” and “Enough for You” — each of which she delivered expertly, knowing just when to push her voice and when to lay back — is a natural aesthetic choice for a member of a generation that’s grown up being rewarded with likes for unburdening themselves on social media.

Yet Rodrigo displayed a more mature empathizer’s gift as well. “Hope Ur OK,” about a series of vulnerable characters in hostile family situations, was deeply moving as she accompanied herself tenderly on acoustic guitar. And your heart just about broke to hear her describe the insanity in Texas — “We should never have to worry about our safety or our lives in places that are dedicated to learning and growing,” she said to broad applause — only weeks after weighing in at a different show on the importance of abortion rights.

Rodrigo closed with “Good 4 U,” which followed “Drivers License” to the top of Billboard’s Hot 100 albeit by a different route: Rather than expressing bafflement over how an ex “could be so OK now that I’m gone,” as she puts it in “Drivers License,” the blistering “Good 4 U” lands on a solution to the same problem, which is that her ex is obviously “a damn sociopath.”

Here, after a crunching instrumental wind-up, Rodrigo ripped into the song as though she’d been waiting to savor its abandon in front of thousands of adoring fans — and as though she knew all along she’d eventually get the chance.


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