Lana Del Rey | photo by John Vettese for WXPN
Lana Del Rey offers a gloriously moody counterpoint to South Philly revelry at Wells Fargo Center Sunday
A few minutes after the Eagles clinched their NFC championship victory on Sunday night, Lana Del Rey took the stage at the Wells Fargo Center, just across the sports complex. Someone had tipped her off. “Philadelphia…I hear your team won tonight,” she beamed to jubilant crowd – “so it should be a good night.” And so it was – although, to be sure, the gloriously moody, brooding strains she had in store for us were a far cry from the gleeful mayhem presumably erupting in the parking lots just outside the stadium. Aside from her penchant for Americana and for grand, dramatic pageantry, there probably aren’t all that many similarities between a Lana Del Rey concert and a football game. At least her backup dancers’ velvet minidresses were approximately the right shade of green.
As a committed fan who was blown away by Lana’s debut back in 2012 and has been eagerly anticipating an opportunity to see her live ever since, I still had some major doubts about this concert, particularly related to it being an arena show. For one thing, it’s always been strangely difficult to get a clear sense of her actual popularity. Could she even come close to filling the Wells Fargo? Turns out she did much better than I’d feared: the lower stands, as far as I could see, were relatively well populated all the way around the arena – at least, they didn’t feel embarrassingly empty (as was pretty much the case when I saw Arcade Fire there a few months back.) The GA floor section, however, was at best a quarter filled, which put a slight, odd damper on the energy of the evening. (Not that there’s necessarily a better indoor venue for her to play in town – she would have handily sold out the Fillmore and left many fans wanting – but perhaps the pricing tiers could have been adjusted to help avoid a big empty space in the middle of the room.)
Energy, of course, is not exactly Lana’s strong suit: her music maintains an overwhelmingly consistent languorous tone and slow-to-mid-tempo pace, meaning it hardly lends itself to the dynamic peaks and valleys you might hope for from a large-scale arena set. (The set-closing “Off To The Races” was positioned as something of an antidote to this; delivered as an amped up, marginally up-tempo “rocker,” including a bit of grandstanding from the guitarist, but even that felt like a stretch.) But no matter: the fans – many of them decked out for the occasion with Lana-friendly vintagewear and glammy makeup, with an abundance of sparkles and flowers in hair – brought plenty energy of their own, and were clearly thrilled to meet Lana on her level. And Lana returned the love: even before spending the show’s final minutes posing for selfies and bestowing over-the-barricade hugs on fans in the front row (finally re-emerging with an armload of gifts and flowers), she repeatedly asserted her appreciation for our support, encouraged audience sing-alonging to a possibly excessive degree, and honored several shouted song requests (including, after some initial protestations, an unrehearsed snippet of Ultraviolence deep cut “Old Money” which reinstated an obscure, early-version lyric about the Jersey Shore.)
The paradoxical (and potentially frustrating) thing about Lana Del Rey in a live setting is that, despite her highly romantic and theatrical music, and her predilection for invoking larger-than-life, iconic imagery in her lyrics and visuals – represented in this case by a multi-level beach-themed set complete with palm trees, rocky outcroppings and lounge chairs, and a well-incorporated backdrop of screens presenting, largely, the kind of grainy, cinematic mid-century stock footage familiar from her music videos – she’s not at all flashy or dramatic (or even especially charismatic) as a performer. “Lana Del Rey” is, after all, a character herself – the stage name of one Elizabeth Grant, milking its evocations of faded Hollywood grandeur for all they’re worth – and her songs (not to mention her career writ large) demonstrate a clear interest in explorations of myth-making and performance. Yet the persona she projects on stage is virtually devoid of personality: she presents as a nice, courteous, mild-mannered singer-songwriter, generically grateful for her fans and her success. Which may be an entirely authentic, accurate reflection of who she is. But how boring would that be?
Lana spoke a fair amount during the show, but said almost nothing of real substance. She introduced what felt like every other song as “one of her favorites.” She told some vague stories related to the songs that rarely revealed anything whatsoever about them. And her efforts at topicality were almost crushingly banal: “This is an interesting time to be on tour, especially with all the political things that have been happening.” She invoked the previous day’s womens’ march (one of the “amazing things going on”) before commemorating it with a partial rendition of “God Bless America – And All The Beautiful Women In It.” (There are probably around zero songs in her catalog that could be described as uncomplicatedly feminist, so I guess that one serves as well as any.)
But, ah well. Whatever Lana may have lacked in sparkling wit or insightful commentary, she made up for with the magnificent instrument that is her rich, tremulous, surprisingly versatile singing voice, which was if anything even more stunning in person. As the centerpiece of her typically lush, lavish arrangements – which sounded predictably great filling up that massive room – her voice was the essential focal point of every song, sometimes magnified by backing-track doubling and harmonizing. But it was even better in the handful of more stripped-down and/or spontaneous moments, including a brief, lightly adorned rendition of “Scarborough Fair.” In a set that drew heavily from her latest album Lust for Life and from her deathless debut (and by far her most successful album, Born to Die) – with 2015’s Honeymoon represented by only a single song – perhaps the most redolent moment came early in the night with a very early throwback: “Yayo,” one of the first songs, she told us, that she wrote after learning to play guitar. She performed it solo, accompanying herself on a white flying V – a suitably intimate setting for one of her most blushingly intimate songs, with its equally seductive and haunted refrain of “let me put on a show for you.” Sunday night’s performance was a “show” of an entirely different sort, perhaps. But it was no less of a feast for the senses.
Pretty When You Cry
Cherry / Scarborough Fair
Born to Die
God Bless America – And All the Beautiful Women In It (a cappella)
When The World Was At War We Kept Dancing
Lust for Life
Medley: Change / Black Beauty / Young and Beautiful
Off to the Races