SHOW REVIEW + GALLERY: Girl In Red + Holly Humberstone in Chicago, IL
Updated: Mar 29, 2022
Scroll to the bottom to see Teddy’s photos from the gig!
After an hour and a half of high energy jumping and headbanging across the stage, Girl in Red looks out at the crowd and says, “I’m officially stating that the slow part of the show is over.” It’s the second sold out night of Girl in Red’s tour at Metro Chicago and Marie Ulven, the Girl in question, has issued a challenge to her second audience: “it was crazy last night. So we have to have even more fun.”
Before anyone could fulfill the challenge, Holly Humberstone opened the night with a series of songs rich in cautious optimism for connection despite the audible loneliness. Whether it was on keys or accompanied by guitar, the English singer-songwriter delivered a refreshing softness of lyrics that belied her punk appearance in a skull & bones dress, fishnets, and platform techwear boots (admittedly an outfit I dreamed of being cool enough to pull off when Avril Lavigne’s “Sk8er Boi” came out). Alone on stage, Humberstone told stories about moving to London from her home in the English countryside (“London is Lonely”), demonstrating her fear and insecurity through the layers of vocal moans and expressive melodic lines looped on guitar.
Every layer she chose in songs like “Falling Asleep at the Wheel” built a sonic landscape of emotional exhaustion and growing up uncertain that we could share with her. During “Deep End,” Humberstone shared that the song was inspired by her sister’s struggles with mental health. “I’m kind of an awkward girl when it comes to talking about stuff, especially mental health,” she confessed. “I wanted to write this to show her I’m with her, even if I don’t understand.” Mellow and straight-faced, Humberstone’s music reaches out with the same message: I might not have the exact words to articulate the feeling, but I’m here.
Although Humberstone has yet to cut her teeth on a full-length album, she has already proved prolific in the pandemic years with two EPs and multiple singles. As a live artist, she excels at making her vulnerability the kind you can dance or ride your bike through the streets to (think indie movie), toggling between keys, guitar, drum pad, and vocals in head-bopping songs like “Scarlett.” Before she finished her set, Humberstone smiled shyly and said, “This song hasn’t been released yet, but you can message me on Instagram and I’ll share the demo with you.” It was a performance reminiscent of Lorde’s coming-of-age album, Pure Heroine, both in charming lyrical honesty and artful arrangement. I can’t wait to see what she can do with a full band.
By the time Girl in Red was set to appear, the upper and lower levels of Metro were packed: each railing home to countless draped rainbow flags that were later thrown on stage. Soon enough, the crowd got its wish and the band appeared in near darkness until Ulven popped up with a microphone in her hand and jumped into the first verse of “You Stupid Bitch.” Punchy, dynamic, and imaginative, the Norwegian singer-songwriter emerged as a queer icon in 2018 with viral hits “We Fell in Love in October,” “Girls,” and “I Wanna Be Your Girlfriend.” Now a year after her first album, “If I Could Make it Go Quiet,” has been released, the band has a long way to go on tour: 17 countries from March until August.
Despite the 49 upcoming concerts, Ulven showed no restraint whipping her hair and volleying melodies to her bandmates with the same energy as the night before at Metro. Seeing Girl in Red live is an experience in fully committing to the present moment, and it’s clear that her fans have felt that presence in their lives. Later in the show, Ulven accepted a bouquet of roses from the front row with a note reading, “Thank you so much. You changed my life.” There is an openness with which Girl in Red performs – not only in the rawness of the songs in the setlist but the casual jokes and silly stories (e.g. one time she was in New York and drank a Coke that tasted like pee) that she shares with her audiences. Throughout the show, she makes the artist-audience dynamic intimate: like we are all friends who are gathered in her basement to laugh about her dumb choice to see a hookup (“Bad Idea!”), cringe while she’s on a phone call to an ex (“Did You Come?”), and cry along about our failed relationships (“.”).
As a musical performance, you can tell this is a band that knows how to communicate with each other by the unified nuance in strategic crescendos, the way they make space for Ulven to talk to the crowd during the set, and the amped up production on songs that show off Ulven’s ear as a producer. Each band member was equally invested in the success of the show and played expressively, with all their effort in their fingers and their faces. And the crowd is more than willing to match that energy. “The best shows are the ones where the crowd gives as much as I give. ‘Cuz when you guys give more, I give you more,” Ulven said after “Midnight Love.” “I’m gonna be walking away tonight feeling extremely happy I played here.” During the rebellious vitality of “Serotonin,” Ulven stared expectantly at the audience and asked through a grin, “Are you guys gonna catch me?”
When I fell in love for the first time, “We Fell in Love in October” was on a playlist I made my girlfriend at the time. And when “If I Could Make it Go Quiet” released, we were in different time zones and different states of mind. Girl in Red stays relevant not only because of her musical talents but because she tells stories of queer longing, love, and loss to fans who only recently have begun to see those stories – their stories – reflected in music and media. Whether she’s performing for young fans who one day hope to find someone to sing “my girl, my girl, my girl” to or older fans who have been together since before same-sex marriage was legalized in the United States, Girl in Red connects with her audience through the lyrics in one of her very first hits, “Girls,”: “no, this is not a phase/or a coming of age/this will never change.”
You don’t have to think about your own heartache when the bass in “Dead Girl in the Pool” plays so deeply you can feel it filling that space in your chest. She sings and plays and thrashes all of the emotions for you on stage; all you have to is promise to catch her when she jumps. This is the push-and-pull energy that artists like Girl in Red bring to life during live concerts: a collaborative experience where, for two or so hours, you and some strangers can all build a world between your ears. Tonight, we are all launching ourselves off of stages, abandoning self preservation to trust that we’ll eventually be held.