The doors of the BART open at the Coliseum station. Hundreds of people get off and start to walk in the direction of the twin stadiums in the distance. The typical pre-show excitement from the fans making their way to the venue is palpable. Still, the smell of hot dogs from the vendors in the elevated walkways connecting the venues is a surprise. It’s 8:00 pm on a Saturday, and there is no sporting event scheduled. Rather, the occasion is Sia’s second show of her Nostalgic for the Present Tour in Oakland, California. The venue is the Oracle Arena, the home of the Golden State Warriors. Despite the festive ambience around me, I am only barely able to talk for fear that my voice will betray me; I am overwhelmed. As I enter the Oracle, a 18,000 plus seat arena, I keep thinking that this cannot be the venue where Sia will be playing. But the sights (men, women, girls and boys everywhere are dressed up in wigs, bows, and nude leotards) and sounds (there is already a roaring crowd enjoying the opener Miguel) are real – All these people are here to see Sia.
The first time I saw Sia, it was at a tiny club in Vancouver back in 2008. The show was not the first Sia had played in the city, she had been here with Zero 7 and at least one solo tour that I can remember. The Media Club, where I saw her that first time, is a box-shaped venue that has the stage at the front and the bar at the back. The noise and conversations from people at the bar is constant, at this was no exception at Sia’s show. However, when the moment came to perform “Breathe Me,” a song featuring Sia free styling gorgeously at the climax of the song, something happened that I will always remember: as Sia did her usual wordless count at the end of the final verse, the club went completely silent – in awe, respect, expectation. And then she exploded, her singing the most glorious example of skill meeting emotion and emotion being shaped by skill. She was out of this world.
The path she has followed, from obscure indie artist to songwriting superpower, is the least I could have imagined for Sia. And yet, her depth, her ability to go from chill best girlfriend mode into otherworldly singing being has always been there and evident to me. All of this: the numerous hits written for other major artists – Beyoncé, Rihanna, David Guetta to name a few; the culture changing videos, the mainstream TV show appearances; is the manifestation of Sia finally owning and taking control of her talent and her abilities.
The Nostalgic for the Present tour, Sia’s first tour in five years, in the perfect example of this. It is a highly realized concept which, in many ways, goes against all the sacred rules of live performances. With no live band on stage or anywhere, Sia sang along to a track for the duration of the show. The stage, bare but for a raised platform in the middle and some key pieces of lightning, was a continuation of the minimalistic sets of her last several videos. More striking, Sia was almost a disembodied presence during the show, as she receded further and further to the back of the stage while the the dancers and other performers enacted each of the songs.
Sia has always experimented in some way or another with the presentation of her shows; an all neon-clad band in 2008, wearing a huge wings corset in 2010, but even more so with the presentation of herself as an artists and singer in the public eye. The wig hiding Sia’s face is an evolution of many previous experiments in distortion and obscurement. Her whole “Buttons” video is about that.
Anybody who was lucky to see Sia during her previous tours knows that her stage presence is delightful not only because of the beautiful abandon which with she sings but because her interaction with the audience is constant, playful, and many times, hilarious. And as her live show banter in previous tours revealed, Sia has always been adept at deflecting the attention off from herself, often making her audiences laugh with a silly joke right after having made them cry with the power and the pain of her voice. At the show in Oakland there was no such respite. Song after song, the show played from beginning to end as a single piece, a musical play which had the privilege to have Sia, her unmistakable warm, extraordinary voice, as its soundtrack. At times, as she has done in some of her more recent recordings, she would let her voice break and strain, becoming all the more touching, raw and beautiful.
Sia’s music to me, even her more recent top 40 hits, is about empowerment, not against the world, but against our own destructive demons. This show, which included performances by the brilliant young dancer Maddie Ziegler, was designed to represent these psychological battles in dance form; but it was shadows, oversized props, and the beauty of the human form that were at the core of each choreography-we are very far from classical pop dance numbers and fierce Beyoncé style formations.
Looking for points of reference, I thought of Pink Floyd with their abstract and poetic concert visuals, specially when it came to the videos playing in the large screens in between the songs. It was an unbelievable, improbable arena spectacle. And yet it was still just pure, perfect Sia.