It’s Nelly’s Party (Come Get It): NELLY FURTADO AT PARK WEST, 3/7/01

Will Nelly Furtado’s 21st century pop music bouillabaisse save America?

There were no flash pots, indoor fireworks, or multi-tiered stages. She wasn’t coming off a skin-tight appearance at The Super Bowl. And the only click track she needed was the beat of her two drummers. On Wednesday night in Chicago, Nelly Furtado brought her own brand of girl-powered pop to an audience in dire need of a real-rock transfusion.

All of 22, Nelly Furtado already has four major Juno awards in her native Canada. “Woah, Nelly!,” her domestic debut, is lodged at 64 on the Billboard 200 and climbing. And all this despite limited US airplay and exposure. It’s a damn shame. Furtado’s music combines the laid-back hippie vibe of Edie Brickell with the urban beats and slick production of Lauryn Hill or Macy Gray. She could be compared with Fiona Apple’s cabaret approach to pop, but she has none of Fiona’s bile-spitting anger. The world isn’t bullshit for Nelly. In fact, she seems to love it. Her songs are imbued with a sunny sense of themselves, which translates live to an easygoing sexiness that’s refreshing in a climate of pedantic aftermarket popstars.

Dressed simply in jeans and a tank top (no red unitards here), Furtado took the stage promptly at 8:15, fronting her male 5-piece band with a remote mic that let her skip around like a Canadian/Portuguese imp. Though her jaunty stage moves were a bit Gwen-like, they weren’t tripped out. She was obviously enjoying herself, and probably trying also to spice up a somewhat tepid crowd. While Furtado’s voice – a shimmering tool that can go high, low, and in between – was the star of the show, her band did its part to replicate the slick production of “Woah, Nelly!” Remember Andrew Farris, the ubiquitous keyboard player from INXS who seemed to play every instrument at once? Nelly’s keyboard guy saw him too. Often playing two keyboards while at the same time backing Nelly up with synthesized harmony, he was the guts of the band. With his electronics taking such a prominent role, the rest of the band suffered a little. When the guitar man strapped on his Strat, it was non-existent in the mix. But they were still a band, and she was still singing all her own stuff, which is light years beyond your average TRL artist. It’s tough to sing into the mic from the audience at a Britney concert.

As the night moved along, the upbeat material fared better. When Nelly and her band gathered on stools with acoustic instruments (including a crazy thing involving a long stick and what looked like a cantaloupe) to perform a few traditional Portuguese numbers, the bathroom lines lengthened. Which wasn’t surprising. Despite widespread critical acclaim, Furtado’s music has taken awhile to crack the American market, and has done so without the normal publicity juggernaut of KISS-FM airplay and mall appearances. So when she cranked up “Shit On The Radio (Remember The Days),” the (mostly underage female) crowd responded by shouting back the chorus. I realized then why the line for beer had been so short all night.

Nelly is good for American music. She has no use for Swedish songsmiths, oversexed posturing, or vapid layouts in Tiger Beat. Her approach to music is similar to countrywoman Sarah McLachlan’s, only without the adult-contemporary aftertaste. It ain’t no thing for her to switch from soulful high notes into gritty rap, which she pulls off with admirable flow. While the music sometimes enters over-produced, Mattel Sinsonic Drums territory, the slickness never overpowers Furtado’s voice or lyrics (which she writes). Watching her lead the audience in the chanting chorus to “Turn Off The Light,” it was easy to imagine her as a more organic Britney. While the new Material Girl and her ilk desperately try to extend their pyrotechnic fantasy ride, girls like Nelly are out there doing it for the kids, and with all the right moves: A little bit urban, a little bit hippie, and completely 21st century.


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