To cap off an epic day, I got to watch Niall Horan's first virtual live show last night. Live streamed from London and then replayed for East and West Coast timezones at 8pm, Niall took to the stage to play songs from his debut (Flicker) and sophomore (Heartbreak Weather) albums- some for the very first time. Niall's second album debuted right as the pandemic lockdowns were originally put into effect (March 13th), and many of his planned promotion opportunities, along with his tour with Lewis Capaldi and Fletcher, were cancelled. In the face of uncertainty and without the usual avenues to promote the album, Niall took to Instagram Live where fans (myself included), hung out with Niall for days on end, watching him play guitar and sit on the couch watching replays of old gold tournaments. Through the worst of the uncertainty, it felt like Niall was there as a quarantine friend, chatting with fans and playing requested songs. On one live, he went through the entire album and played each song while explaining their meanings. These stripped back, unfiltered performances and hang outs cemented Niall among the top tier former One Direction members in my mind.
As the year progressed and the summer hit, Niall was less of a constant presence in everyone's feeds. All good things eventually do come to an end. From the odd interview, it sounded like Niall had all but given up on his second album. He seemed to see it as lost in the disarray around its release. Still, the album is solid enough to stand on its own and stay in your mind even without the usual media push. Recently, he announced that he'd be playing a show at the historic London venue, Royal Albert Hall. During a live stream announcing it, he explained that the show was a benefit for his out of work crew members and the larger organization #wearecrew. All profits for the night would go directly to his crew and the organization along with the profits from the merch sales, and the show would be a chance to raise awareness for the importance of the crew, who are often meant to be invisible to the average viewer. Additionally, the show offered Niall a chance to play a true Heartbreak Weather show since he's consistently hinted that he wants to release new music before he hits the road again. With full capacity touring possibly out of the question till 2022, that's a tough choice most artists will have to face. Though he's played all the songs acoustically on Live, I was excited for the chance to see them performed concert style. Since I never managed to score tickets to his cancelled spring tour, I was extra excited to get to see him play live to some degree.
This is my second ever virtual show. The first was Billie Eilish's (review here), so I had some level of expectations going in. Niall and Billie put on two very different shows, which makes sense considering their missions as artists couldn't be more different. While Billie's live stream focused on utilizing technology to enhance the virtual experience and add animations to her set, Niall's live stream had a classic vibe. The Royal Albert Hall is a gorgeous venue, and they showcased its beauty spectacularly. A round of applause goes out to whoever programed the lighting for the night. It gorgeously complimented the venue and matched perfectly with the sonic and emotional pitches of the songs. I also enjoyed how they lit the boxes with small lights that made the room feel fuller. While there wasn't the clapping from the crew that happened at Billie's, it didn't feel too awkward. Niall was on stage with a full band including a guitarist, bass guitarist, keyboardist, drummer, and violin player. Since this was the same band he's toured with for the last three or four years, their chemistry was enough to keep the room feeling full and lively. The situation was also helped by the fact that we all burst into applause in my house after he finished most songs. We had a quick discussion over whether to clap and cheer or not, but we all felt like Niall earned it. My mom was the first to clap a few songs in on impulse.
He opened the set with "Dear Patience", which is one of the star tracks on the album. It's a mellow way to start the show, but I think that's one of the advantage of a crowd-less performance. You don't necessarily need to get everyone hyped to sit in their living room. I liked that he started on this note because it increased the intimate feeling by starting so focused on Niall before the song bloomed to include more of the band. Artistry and instruments truly made the forefront of the night. The full band and the quality of songs were able to speak for themselves alone in that empty room.
While Niall acknowledged he had some nerves at the beginning, he handled them with grace and adjusted quickly. By the time he got to songs he'd played hundreds of times, like "Slow Hands", he really loosened up and hand some fun moments interacting with the band and the camera. Through the night, he played a variety of guitars but also mixed in a couple dancing moments. It's easy to see the genuine passion Niall has for music when you watch him play, and having watched him all through One Direction, I always marvel at how perfectly Niall has been able to nestle into his own lane after never quite having a defined place in the band beyond standing behind his guitar. His voice as an artist rang loud and clear last night. Honest, approachable, undeniably talented, and completely excited about music, Niall sucked us all in from the first song. Unlike other virtual concerts I've watched, I didn't want to check Twitter. I needed to soak up every second of the experience. Even though he lamented multiple times that we couldn't be there with him, he still was able to translate the show through the screen and keep it entertaining. For those who love live music purely for the songs and the personality, this was the show for you. It wasn't flashy, but that's what made it so good. It felt like the intimate show I'd been craving from a virtual concert. The camera simply scores you the coveted front row seat.
As far as the set list, I was pleased overall. Naturally, it was heavy on the Heartbreak Weather songs, but he got in the hits from Flicker too. He had "Still" from the new album on the set, which I was thrilled to see, but I was disappointed that "San Fransisco" and "Bend The Rules" (my top two from the album) didn't make the cut. I was also surprised to see one of the main Heartbreak Weather singles, "No Judgement" didn't make it either. From Flicker, he played "On the Loose", "This Town", "Flicker", and "Slow Hands". I enjoyed all of these, but if I could exchange one song from the Flicker set, I'd sub in "Too Much To Ask" because it's my favorite Niall song. Even with these notes, I absolutely can't complain. He even made me love "Nice To Meet You", the lead single that's my only skip from the album. His energy and magnetism during this performance of the song had me chair dancing and sining along. The surprise in the middle of the set was the first truly live performance of Ashe and Niall's duet, "Moral of the Story", which became a streaming sensation during quarantine. I give Ashe major props for her commitment, flying from LA and quarantining two weeks, to be there. It was cute to see Niall enjoying her performance and being an audience of one during her solo moments. Interspersed with these songs were many moments reminding the audience of the purpose of the night and educating them on the importance of crews to live music. He repeatedly told the audience that none of this could happen without all the crew mem
bers, and he explained that supporting them through this period of being out of work is vital. Niall repeatedly referred to them as "the engine room" of the music industry, and there really couldn't be a better analogy. As someone who's followed #saveourstages here in the US, I appreciated Niall spreading awareness and backing that up with funding for #weneedcrew. (I encourage you to look into both of these organizations through clicking their names in this post!) For his final song, "Flicker", the crew came out and started breaking down the set while he performed alone with his acoustic guitar. While everyone was originally confused about what was happening, it seemed like Niall was trying to use his final song to show the crew in action and give more visibility to everything that goes into building and tearing down a show. It was a nice touch to bring home the purpose of the evening.
Overall, I couldn't be happier with how this show happened. I just wanted him to keep playing. My only critique is that it could've been a half hour longer. It seems like an hour is the standard run time for these livestream gigs. For $20, we all felt like it was money beyond well spent, not to mention the proceeds all specifically went to charity. Additionally, Niall gave out some interesting stats during one of the talking portions. In my article about Billie's show, I wondered how many tickets she was able to sell with an unlimited ticketing platform. While those numbers never got released, Niall shared that they sold over 130,000 tickets and those came from around 150 different countries, including some small islands. It's pretty amazing to quantify that wide of a reach, and he acknowledged that as unfortunate as it was that we couldn't be there in person, there's no way to fit all 130,000 people in Royal Albert Hall with him. These livestreams allow fans from around the world who might never have artists come to their country or city to see some degree of live music. I will always be a fan of these virtual concerts for that reason. I did lament in Billie's that I felt like I was watching another video instead of being immersed in a live event. I left Niall's live show with a true post-concert buzz. He made me feel like I'd seen a live show. I think a major factor in that is that the music part was so to the forefront. Usually, at a concert, the band is a definite presence. In Billie's, the band was minimized and the digital effects were at the forefront. They are two totally separate approaches, but I think Niall's approach just satisfied my particular live music itch better. It also made me realize how much I truly missed Niall after he abandoned Instagram Live.
If this is truly the only Heartbreak Weather show, it'll be a shame because the album is solid front to back. I'm glad this concert reminded me of that. I highly recommend you go stream it if you haven't yet. Despite this, I'm excited for Niall to roll out a new album whenever he's ready. I enjoyed this virtual show so much it's doubled my dedication for getting into one of his shows, whenever those are rescheduled for.
Also, before I wrap this up, I want to give Niall some major props for how he's handled the upheaval of the pandemic. He was one of the few artists who decided to simply give everyone full refunds because of the financial strain of the pandemic and uncertainty of actually playing the shows he sold. He's also refused to sell new tour dates until it's guaranteed they will be safe to play. He's been savvy and adaptable enough to engage with fans on a human level through these various live streams, and instead of deciding to put on a for-profit virtual concert (as is becoming common practice), he decided to do it for a highly important cause that doesn't get enough visibility. While it's totally valid to do a for-profit virtual concert (touring is a major component of all artists' jobs), it was nice to see someone using their platform to benefit others.
Tonight was truly wonderful.