Photography by Chontalle Musson
Review by Grace Hood-Edwards
X Ambassadors kicked off their ORION world tour at the Powerstation this Tuesday evening. A small, intimate crowd were drawn to the Powerstation, the blustering air-con a welcome release from the sopping heat that has been lingering over Auckland this past fortnight. Unfortunately, said crowd were left waiting over half an hour past X Ambassadors’ set-time, for what lead vocalist Sam Harris said was his brother’s, keyboardist Casey Harris’, instrument rig getting “fucked up” in transit. Although it was good to receive an explanation three quarters of the way through the show, a small announcement at the time, or an apology, would have been appreciated.
Nevertheless, when X Ambassadors did enter they stormed on to a loud “What’s up New Zealand!”, before hurtling into a practiced, energetic rendition of ‘HEY CHILD’. The sudden manic high energy felt a little weird with the current energy in the room, but the crowd slowly warmed up. The crowd might have been small, but they were passionate – shouting out the lyrics alongside Sam Harris. Casey Harris features a very fun jazzy solo from the keys, alongside a sugary whistling melody. The high energy rockets with the gunshot beating of the drums by Adam Levin signalling the beginning of ‘Jungle’, as Sam Harris leaps upward in an impressive jump. They put their all into it, with ground-shaking volume, and the audience love them. The dance number ‘BOOM’ has the crowd almost unanimously leaping up and down with Harris, as they are pulling off a performance with energy worthy of an arena. “You guys are fucking bringing it!” Harris remarks after the song.
Sam Harris’ performance from the first second on-stage is dynamic, striking many a power pose, with many a thrusting hip. He keeps this energy up throughout the concert, trading his moments with the mic for brief interludes with a guitar or saxophone, arms bared in a navy fishing vest (with matching trousers) with ‘SUPREME’ emblazoned on the back. Harris’ voice has a pleasurable, almost-cavernous bass sound to it – crisp, clean and record-perfect. During ‘Don’t Stay’ he delivers a surprising falsetto, showing off his range with some incredibly high notes near the coda. He speaks briefly in-between songs to the crowd, stating that it is “very monumental” for X Ambassadors to be in New Zealand and about how thankful they are.
X Ambassadors are at their best when they put the instruments first, with electric solos and instrumental breaks – including an insane riff in ‘Jungle’ that culminates in this wild clashing of sounds. These moments are flashes of excellent creative inspiration, and they have the talent to pull them off – it would be great to see more experimentation in their future works. X Ambassadors sound and subject matters are simple and universally relatable – it’s clear why they’ve had such soundtrack success with their music. Their songs are high-energy and well-constructed, but have a cookie-cutter perfection to them – they come alive as the band-members let loose in unexpected, jazzy refrains.
‘RULE’ highlights this quality, beginning with a skittering quiet drumline that evolves into a groovy, broken down bassline. It’s a very musically interesting song, and very fun with saxophone and pre-recorded dialogue. They move on from the jazzy lounge vibe to run through a varied collection of tracks, including abbreviated renditions of a few of their collaborations with other artists – such as Rihanna’s ‘American Oxygen’, which includes an intro laden with all the buzzwords of the American psyche, but skates over the deeper, darker complexities of American identity.
This series of collaborations also includes a short excerpt of Illenium’s ‘In Your Arms’, which was a soulful, lyrical moment that featured the power and strength of Sam Harris’ tone and voice. Sam and Casey Harris were left alone on stage, continuing the emphasis Sam put on their bond throughout the show. Sam Harris introduced ‘HOLD YOU DOWN’ by talking about how the song ultimately was about his brother and “standing by him”, and has the audience hold one another. ‘Hold You Down’ itself was very good live, and is clearly an arena hit. When the song breaks down, again, it’s really fun – particularly with Casey Harris whistling a continuous wail into the mic above his keys.
Although Sam Harris is a large personality on-stage, the most fascinating performer on-stage was his older brother Casey. Not only did he pull off outstanding solos, but he threw himself into them – literally throwing his whole body back and forth above the keyboard as his hands danced across the keyboard. My eyes were consistently drawn to him throughout the performance.
Casey Harris shone brightest in an interlude post ‘Wasteland’, as he was spotlighted for a gorgeous solo as a beautiful quiet came over the audience. I felt the emotion behind Harris’ playing more strongly than any lyrics heard previously through the show. That complexity and artistry is something I would love the band to explore further in future albums. The audience was spellbound. Of course this magic moment hailed the entrance of ‘Unsteady’ – one of their greatest hits and a truly beautiful song. My personal favourite, ‘Unsteady’ has all that depth and creativity as displayed in Casey Harris’ playing and was emotional and fuller-bodied live. A minor element that marred an otherwise perfect moment was Sam Harris calling for the crowd to put their hands up, which they gladly did. I’ve been trying to understand why this move has grated on me recently during concerts I’ve reviewed, and have come to the realisation that it is a frustrating shortcut used by live performers to elicit a sense of emotionality rather than a genuine emotionally-driven response. It robs a sincere moment of possible authentic response and, whilst okay to hype a crowd up, simply rings a wrong note during sensitive moments.
X Ambassadors’ technical issues mean they perform an acoustic version of ‘Gorgeous’, where Sam Harris charms the audience with playful intervals as he compliments himself. He’s a highly charismatic performer, and there is pure happiness on his face as he tells the crowd how excited they are to come back to New Zealand. Expectation builds as the band winds up to their final song ‘Renegades’ which closes to cacophonous screams at a volume louder than anything you could expect from such an intimate audience.
In spite of the small crowd, X Ambassadors threw their all into it, and everything Sam Harris gave the crowd, they gave back. It was as if I could see the possible future of X Ambassadors‘ NZ appearances stretching out before me, and I only see them growing in popularity. When they next return, I hope to see a stadium show with crafted atmosphere and the same fire being applied to a more experimental album.