Kelela Forged a Kinetic Connection in Toronto

The Opera House, March 24

Photo: Chris Gee

BY Calum SlingerlandPublished Mar 25, 2023

​"One of the things I've been thinking about... I feel like I need to do missed connections at the Kelela show," Kelela Mizanekristos shared with her rapt crowd toward the end of the evening at Toronto's Opera House. "It's giving, 'I saw you at the door, you were wearing blah blah blah, I felt very shy,' you know? I think that the rate of connection would be very, very high."

Whether those in attendance had been plugged into the artist's masterful melds of contemporary R&B and progressive electronics since 2013's Cut 4 Me, or only recently took the plunge into the stunning depths of this year's Raven, the connection that Kelela spoke of was palpable within the packed venue. There was little standing in her way: the artist moved through a career-spanning set (with some clever, club-ready edits) from the stage alone, bathed in elaborate, expertly-synced lighting. The audience, meanwhile, embraced the freedom of a Friday night in joyous dance, singing along to every memorable hook.

In pointing to the power of a shared experience like this, Kelela wasn't seeking to simply operate as a DJ or MC, but more what she called a "translator of feelings," explaining, "I wanted these shows to feel really intimate. I want to be able to see people's faces in the balcony, you know? I'm so happy to be sharing this moment — there's no frills, no extra shit. Just you, and I, and this."

Striding to the fore of the blue-lit stage as the keyboards of "Washed Away" enveloped the room, Kelela effectively set the tone for the evening with her expert control in singing the Raven opener's vocalizations, a mood soon amped up by a furious breakbeat upon a quick mix to "kidkanevil's 94 junglist edit" of the song. At less of a breakneck speed with "Happy Ending," she harmonized with her minimal backing track, and was elated when the audience lent a hand with the "m-m-more" of the second verse. In taking the crowd back a decade to her breakout "Bank Head," Kelela showed just how great her head voice range is all this time later, heightening her own melodic ad-libbing in the outro with delay effects.

Without a DJ, hype person or elaborate stage setup behind her, Kelela's continuous play with light and shadow was an experience in and of itself from my perch in the Opera House balcony. If coloured spotlights weren't flashing in time with the snare hits for a song like "Bank Head," the artist was stepping out of the beams to improvise in the shadowy middle ground between complete visibility and the darkened backstage. The panels of a sizeable disco ball twinkled to set the mood for "Go All Night," before each piece of the light rig began a strobe cycle in time with a heavy house bassline.

Most powerful of all was the treatment for Raven's title track, which saw two white spotlights catch Kelela near motionless as the song's gliding synth reverberated around the room. With her face obscured by shadow, she brought the mic up in a fashion befitting each deeply-felt, resolute verse: "Through all
the labor / A raven is reborn / They tried to break her."

"I want y'all to be able to take the record and go into your bedroom, or into your car, and just be able to scream the lyrics at the top of your lungs," Kelela shared of taking wing with Raven, expressing, "When we do that healing, or get that catharsis by ourselves, it makes it so that when we're together and we're enjoying the same thing, it's a different level."

Her crowd — waving delicately wrapped roses in the front row, anointing her "mother," and showing respectful silence in her moments of feeling — levelled up throughout the evening. The venue came to life upon the drums of "Contact" kicking into gear, with attendees ready to gleefully holler Kelela's club commentary back at her: "Oh, it's a sauna / Here if you wanna." They didn't miss a word in singing along to Kaytranada's rework of "Waitin," sticking the landing as that track backed into the bridge of "Rewind," and found resolve in Kelela's "Raven" soliloquy that would then fuel the dance to deep groove of "Bruises."

As it was her first Toronto performance since 2018, Kelela thanked those in attendance for respecting her pace in an industry that increasingly demands its creators be always-on: "She took a break, she took some time — she just wasn't on the internet. I just didn't post, that's all! I didn't die!" She further shared of the feeling, "It was more like, 'Whatever it is that Kelela's doing right now, I know she's doing whatever the fuck it is she's supposed to do.' That is faith in the person, and not just the output."

After a final cathartic encore sing-along to the Total Freedom edit of "All the Way Down," Kelela lovingly collected her roses from the stage and disappeared into darkness once more.

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