May 21, 2016
Toyota Center felt like a bit of an odd place to find Ellie Goulding on a Saturday night. Although the British-born songstress has a nice string of hits to her name, she hasn’t quite ascended to the household-name status of Madonna, AC/DC or other acts that have played the arena in recent months. There wasn’t quite the same level of hubbub outside of the stadium that often accompanies big concerts.
But then, Ellie Goulding isn’t your average pop star. Onstage, there’s scant hint of the unassailable divahood projected by forebears like Beyoncé, Gaga or even Miley, each of whom earned top marks at the Michael Jackson Institute of Image. Goulding’s persona is more shy and vulnerable, closer in spirit to that of her pal Taylor Swift but without the megawatt smile or everygirl relatability. Ellie is the rare introverted pop star — a trait only reinforced by her breathy, tremulous vocal delivery.
It’s this unassuming demeanor and quiet sensibility that serves to ground the electronic programming upon which her music is built in a certain folky charm, and people dig it — particularly young women who like to dance with their phones out. Saturday night at Toyota Center was the latest stop on Goulding’s first arena tour, and while the upper bowl was curtained off, a strong general admission crowd turned out early to get a good spot on the floor. The last spot Ellie played in Houston was the theater at Bayou Place, and her fans were eager to see how her performance (and budget) had grown to accommodate the demands of brighter lights and a bigger stage.
They wouldn’t have to wait long to find out. The house lights went down just after 8 p.m., replaced by contrasting video visions of Goulding decked out in black leather and white linen. The darkness evidently won out, because when the singer was finally unveiled, she was wearing the long, shiny jacket of a Matrix hero. The new song “Aftertaste” was the first of the night, lighting up cameraphones from the stage to the concourse. Another upbeat track from new album Delirium, “Holding On For Life,” followed, but the crowd really came to life for the first song everyone seemed to recognize — Halcyon’s “Goodness Gracious.”
On that one, Goulding seemed to begin enjoying herself a bit, too, less encumbered by the more extensive choreography of the opening numbers. Choreographed dance is not the singer’s strong suit, and as often as possible, she channeled her expressiveness into her impressive voice and left the wiggling to her coterie of shredded male dancers. Still, she has learned a few moves since her last trip through town, and cut a striking figure stomping around the stage after shedding the jacket in shiny black shorts, a tight turtleneck and bulky Doc Martens.
There was a lot of dancing going on in the crowd, too, for her recent single “Something in the Way You Move,” which proved to be the night’s first big singalong. It took a while for the rather reserved Houston crowd to warm up to the beat, but by the end of “Outside,” her collab with Calvin Harris, most of the audience was pogoing up and down merrily.
The middle section of the show was dominated by ballads and acoustic numbers showing off the self-taught singer’s lovely vocal range. “Explosions” was a powerhouse, followed by a quiet piano version of “Lights.” The latter still worked without its infectious synth-pop beat, carried along by Goulding’s ethereal voice. But after the comparatively tame “Army” and “Lost and Found,” fans were palpably itching to dance again.
There would be plenty of opportunity in the show’s back half. After roaring back to life in electrified glory on a guitar-heavy “Figure 8,” Goulding uncorked a high-energy streak of upbeat pop tunes that peaked with “I Need Your Love,” one of her most nakedly electronic hits. There was much rejoicing and singing along in the crowd during that one, even as Ellie battled a buildup of static electricity in her blonde locks.
Her reserved personality clearly makes stage banter a challenge for Goulding, but she seemed pleased with the turnout on Saturday and with the city’s enigmatic response to her.
“Houston, you’re kind of shy,” she told us. “You’re simultaneously one of the best crowds I’ve had on this tour and also shy. I think you’re just like me.”
That little bit of bonding drew a bashful, “aw shucks” reaction from her fans, setting them up for the flash capstone of “Burn,” one of Ellie’s biggest hits. As the singer wailed away on a Gibson in her leather jacket and plaid skirt, the song received a proper trashcan ending that left the crowd screaming for more. At least, I thought they were screaming, until I was pierced by the hyper-squeal that accompanied her encore of “Anything Can Happen.” It was deafening and joyous, carrying the audience all the way through until the confetti cannons signaled the end of “Love Me Like You Do,” the final song of the night.
Adrenalized, at least half the crowd sang along to the DJ’s selection of Whitney Houston’s “I Wanna Dance With Somebody” on the way out. Under the lights of the concourse, I saw multitudes of young ladies gathered in groups, dressed up just like Ellie and still buzzing from the show. If her winning streak continues, she might well have enough minions to fill the upper bowl next tour.
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Personal Bias: Old.
The Crowd: Selfies. Lots of ‘em.
Overheard in the Crowd: “Oh, she looks pretty now!”
Random Notebook Dump: Even indoors, Houston is rather more warm than your average London pop star is accustomed to. Ellie kept the complaints to a minimum, God bless her.