Review: Robyn was triumphant in her return to Toronto

The Swedish pop star sounded better than ever during her Honey tour closer at Rebel

ROBYN with KINDNESS and CHANNEL TRES at Rebel, Thursday, March 14. Rating: NNNNN

Robyn might be blowing apart the pop star formula, but she’s very much deserving of a pop star reception – and that’s what she got on the final date of her Honey tour at Rebel on Thursday night.

In a way, Robyn’s music has come to embody the push-and-pull experience of being a Robyn fan: as you’re belting along to Dancing On My Own and Call Your Girlfriend, songs you know are as good as – if not better than – many of pop history’s biggest radio hits, the selfish part of you is happy to just share them with her cultishly devoted fan base of mostly women and queers.

But if the Swedish singer/songwriter’s 19-song performance at Rebel was any indication, she could be upsizing the next time through Toronto. She and her five-piece band played New York City’s Madison Square Garden on this tour, and last night’s North American tour closer was an instant sell-out.

Last year’s Honey album – her first solo album in eight years – followed a period of collaboration and experimentation into cosmic HI-NRG, disco, acid, trance and 90s New York house. It’s a deft and minimalist distillation of her career to date – which started in the late 90s teen pop wave with Max Martin-produced singles Show Me Love and Do You Know (What It Takes). Turned off by the American major label world, she took the reins of her career and started her own label in Europe, while continuing to craft the perfectly produced, pristine-sounding and accessible pop that has been synonymous with Sweden since ABBA.

Onstage, she seamlessly blended Honey’s idiosyncratic digressions, jaunty mid-tempo tunes and emotional, anthemic belter pop ballads. 

Robyn Rebel 2019

Samuel Engelking

You know a pop star is a pop star when they enter silhouette first. We could hear Robyn’s vocals before she emerged at the back of the stage, which was draped in sheer white fabric. Dressed in a white mini-dress with a slightly asymmetrical hemline and adorned in what looked like embroidered pink-and-purple floral nipple details, she stood next to a giant white sculpture of waving hands and sang solemnly. Golden lights shifted her snowy rave cave into a warmer, more inviting vibe and she moved to the foot of the stage to sing Honey’s title track in equally dramatic fashion.

Continuous Italo beats and bass lines connected arpeggiated Body Talk hits Indestructible and Hang With Me, and the crowd did their best to drown out Robyn by singing along with cathartic abandon. Many pop singers have a tendency to cover every inch of a track with vocals, but Robyn is all about the space in between. Left-field Honey track Beach 2K20 gave plenty of opportunity to dance, and she bounced around to Ever Again as the DJ picked up a guitar to bring home the bouncy, soft-focus funk that’s a signature of the track’s co-producer, Joseph Mount of Metronomy.

You also know a pop star is a pop star when they bring out an interpretive dancer to entertain the crowd during a wardrobe and hair change. Part two of the set brought a heavier dance vibe, with Robyn in a gender-non-conforming red lace bodysuit and matching cropped blazer that the aforementioned interpretive dancer helped her put on, funk-showman style, as they playfully locked into synched moves to Because It’s In The Music and the shuffling Between The Lines, a highlight of the set.

The band blended the chunky 90s house beat of Love Is Free with a trippy, early 80s cosmic disco flourish reminiscent of Patrick Cowley. Robyn is a sharp, emotive singer who only relies on backing tracks to fill out secondary vocal parts, but this tour had an overall looser vibe and more sprawling sound than her past concerts. She and the band were locked in – the worst you could say was she hit a few bum notes – but there was plenty of opportunity to jam out and dance.

The most emotional moment came near the main set’s end with Dancing On My Own, which Robyn paused at the first chorus to allow the crowd to sing on its own. That led to rapturous applause and she just stood there and savoured it for a couple of minutes before continuing. Who needs industry validation when you can drink in a moment like that instead?

The two encores teased out two exciting and stylistically varied directions she has taken in recent years. The first was a straight-up deep disco blending of her Mr. Tophat collab Trust Me that segued into Stars 4-Ever via some gloriously loud slap-bass. The second encore returned to ballad territory with Human Being and Who Do You Love, a beautiful collaboration with Kindness, who was also the opening DJ. He joined her along with the other opener, Channel Tres, and his two dancers.

Channel Tres.jpg

Samuel Engelking

Channel Tres

During Channel Tres’s short opening set, the Compton performer showcased his deep voice and even deeper, g-funk-referencing house beats. At the end of Robyn’s set, he led the crowd in a call-and-response to help close the show – and her most stylish and musically ambitious tour to date. Who Do You Love might seem like an odd choice for a closer, but it perfectly captures an ineffable feeling Robyn does best: the moment when bittersweet becomes triumphant.

@nowtoronto | @kevinritchie

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