Tash Sultana almost gave the crowd a choice.
"This can go a few ways," the Australian singer-songwriter told a sold-out Jannus Live Tuesday night. "I can play you something new that no one's ever heard before..."
Sultana didn't even have to finish the sentence, the cheers were so hearty. This was a crowd that came craving the new, the unseen, the unique. Why else would they be at a Tash Sultana concert in the first place?
The self-taught 23-year-old multi-instrumentalist and looping artist -- think Ed Sheeran, but way more unconstrained -- has been lavishly hyped not only for her singular performance style, but also for her incredible backstory, from teenage drug addiction to busking on the streets of Melbourne to viral YouTube videos to top slots at festivals worldwide. (Sultana, who has identified as non-binary, has used both they/them and she/her pronouns, posting this week with the latter.) She's still unknown enough to be an enigma, but might not stay that way for long.
Funny enough, Sultana has a song about all that: That new one she played in St. Petersburg, titled Blame It On Society, about the "really strange journey I've been on in my life."
"It's about when people start finding out who you are, they don't see you as a person anymore, they just see you as public property," she said, noting all the baggage that comes from "exposing your heart and your soul and everything to the whole world."
Maybe because Sultana's so hard to categorize, she invites a lot of projection. The crowd, while diverse, had a strong beachy-stoner presence; any song with a vaguely reggae-like upbeat, like Jungle, got a strong reaction. Then again, so did Sultana's distorted acid-rock solos, delivered from her knees, invoking the likes of Jimi Hendrix or Gary Clark Jr. And so did her hypnotic electro-funk synth beats; her tender, jazzy vocals; or the many moments when she conjured the viking rock spirits of Led Zeppelin.
Ensconced atop a platform of gear like a DJ in a booth, Sultana let each beat and lick echo and evolve into a breathing beast of instrumentation. Like Sheeran -- or KT Tunstall, or Keller Williams, or Reggie Watts -- Sultana recorded and looped herself playing various instruments, from a trumpet on Gemini to a gypsy-punk mandolin and beatbox-backed pan flute on Synergy.
But she didn't confine herself to a three-minute window. The loops came and went, allowing ample time for Sultana to jam away and transform each song into something entirely new. Sultana was patient, letting each song expand to its maximum tripadelic potential. Salvation let her squeal out tones like Clapton; the seductive Free Mind washed waves of loneliness through the amps; Jungle's wocka-wocka funk let her riff around like Prince or Sly Stone. She started each beat; she would stop it when she darn well pleased.
Each time it seemed Sultana had exhausted all her tricks, she'd pull out some other talent she'd mastered. The epic Notion rose like a skyscraper through the lights and fog, drawing atmospheric emotions out of a single post-rock riff that stretched and evolved over more than 10 minutes. And virtuosic acoustic closer Blackbird -- more Led Zep vibes, this time more Gallows Pole than Stairway to Heaven -- saw her delivering dreamy vocals while picking and plucking with both hands. When it ended, she stood, stretched and smiled widely, taking a long look around the awestruck courtyard before leaving.
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Perhaps the most amazing part of it all? Late in night, Sultana admitted that for the first half of her set, she couldn't even hear herself playing.
"I didn't have anything happening in my headphones," she said. "I was just paying. But that's the thing with live music. When it's not a f---ing backing track, sometimes it f---s up. But that's life, isn't it? You fall down, and you get back up."
Ed Sheeran once played Jannus Live, too, you know. Not all one-human bands go on to play stadiums; Sheeran is a unicorn in that way. But Sultana's a unicorn herself; there's no one else like her. And there's no reason not to imagine a day when we'll look back in awe that she once played Jannus Live, too.
Contact Jay Cridlin at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8336. Follow @JayCridlin.