Review: Tori Kelly's remarkable voice, laid-back warmth radiate through Tampa's Ritz Ybor
Forget about Tori Kelly’s endorsement deals. Forget her reality-TV pedigree. Forget the peerless Swedish production team that shined up her debut album Unbreakable Smile.
Forget all those things, because at a certain point during her nearly sold-out concert Tuesday at the Ritz Ybor in Tampa, Kelly seemed to forget them, too. It was just her and an acoustic guitar up there, plucking and strumming and warbling warmly, showcasing the full, dynamic range of her voice.
All that other stuff? It’s all side effects of Kelly’s remarkable pipes, and the roaring crowd packed shoulder-to-shoulder knew and appreciated it.
This was the 23-year-old Californian’s first proper Tampa Bay concert, following a couple of acoustic radio sets last year, and her first since reaping a Best New Artist Grammy nomination this year. She's in a phase where she’s still introducing herself to big swaths of the public, and can do so without caving to many of the pressures of pop stardom. (Not once, for example, did she yield her voice to a backing track, something you can’t always say about other pop singers.)
Opening with an a cappella Where I Belong, Kelly and her band shuffled into Unbreakable Smile’s breezy title track, a song that sounded more suited for Lilith Fair than American Idol or The Voice. This is Kelly’s wheelhouse: Lightly jazzy, effortlessly palatable coffeehouse pop, much more in tune with Corrine Bailey Rae than Katy Perry.
Daydream and Talk were wonderfully charming earworms – the former a floaty acoustic strummer in the vein of John Mayer; the latter a loose, flirty ditty with a buoyant yacht-rock groove. On the funky, chord-flicking Confetti, she strummed and scat-sang like reigning pop princes Ed Sheeran and Shawn Mendes. And I Was Made For Loving You was a winning wisp of lilting English folk that had Kelly pressing her chest with pride when the audience obliged her request for a sing-along.
And then there were her truly acoustic numbers, including the wonderfully vulnerable Beautiful Things and Funny; and a medley of Justin Timberlake’s Suit & Tie, Michael Jackson’s P.Y.T. (Pretty Young Thing) and Frank Ocean’s Thinkin Bout You, which drew an extended ovation and chants of “Tori! Tori! Tori!” from the crowd.
"Shout out to anybody who's ever seen a YouTube video of me," Kelly said, referencing the acoustic cover videos that helped her get signed, "because without you, I definitely wouldn't be up here right now."
In some ways, Kelly still performs like that teenager on YouTube; she projects a calm that suggests she'd be equally at home far outside the spotlight. Still, there were moments when her overtures toward more mainstream pop felt evident -- when she let her voice flow like water around the slight ragga bends of Anyway; or when she bounced around the stage during uplifting neo-soul number Something Beautiful.
When the music got especially loud, it threatened to overshadow Kelly’s voice – only when she wailed out her magical vocal runs, as on the feisty, escalatory Nobody Love, did it fully register above the music.
But a voice like Kelly’s is hard to hide for long. Following a quick jam behind a drum kit, Kelly revved a rocking version of her hit Should’ve Been Us up to the chorus, where she hit that note – you know the one – every time it came up. Even the shiny piano ballad City Dove -- which, with its sweeping, David Foster-y flourishes, tiptoed into treacly territory -- ended up being one of the night’s best vocal showcases, as Kelly's voice just kept floating higher and higher and higher.
It’s no wonder Kelly’s all over TV, belting out The Joy of Pepsi and mentoring singers on The Voice, and it’s no wonder she’s working with pop gurus like Max Martin. Everyone is betting on her, because she's just such an irresistible bet. With that voice, how can she lose? It’s the one thing about her you just can’t forget.
-- Jay Cridlin