The lights winked once, then twice, then dimmed completely over the auditorium, but that didn’t deter the majority of audience members in the half-filled Herbst Theatre in San Francisco on Tuesday from continuing their conversations, albeit at slightly hushed tones. As singer-songwriter Chappell Roan walked onstage, along with her guitarist and their many water bottles, the murmurs continued — at least, that is, until she opened her mouth.
Launching straight into “Bad for You” off her debut EP, School Nights, which was released Sept. 22, Roan took immediate control of the stage, her voice hymnal and intense against the somber backing of the guitar. Shrouded in a curtain of pink and red smoke, she flowed smoothly into the next song — ”Die Young,” a soulful, vocal-heavy ballad that calls to the follies of youth.
It wasn’t until this point, two songs in, that Roan stopped to finally introduce herself to the audience. “This is my first time in San Francisco, and so far so good. I’m from Springfield, Missouri, so it’s very different,” admitted the 19-year-old — her age belied by a colorful floral dress as well as a bashful demeanor while speaking, which stood in stark contrast to her stage presence. She also explained that this performance was, in fact, the fourth show of her first tour ever — headliner Vance Joy’s “Lay It On Me” tour, which also features indie pop singer and fellow Aussie Amy Shark.
And it was this exact inexperience combined with a lack of recognizability that plagued Roan’s set. Despite her obvious comfort on the stage — as evidenced by the kind of dance moves usually reserved for situations where no one’s watching, such as in one’s own bedroom — Roan never fully held the attention of an audience that seemed much more content to whisper and wait for the more famous acts that were to follow. This was only compounded by the fact that the stage was obviously set up for a larger backing ensemble than Roan’s single guitarist, such as Vance Joy’s five-man crew.
Nevertheless, Roan pushed on, taking a break from her own songs to tackle a cover of Fleetwood Mac’s “Dreams” — an unsurprising choice, given that she has cited Stevie Nicks as one of her major influences, along with the likes of Lana Del Rey and Lorde. In Roan’s hands, however, the deceptively upbeat song was transformed into something ethereal and haunting, her voice creating its own presence to help reclaim some of the empty space onstage.
Her desire to free her innermost feelings through music was most evident in her performance of single “Good Hurt,” a song with a pop-like exterior that masks its dark and painful subject matter of toxic relationships. In this moment, the audience seemed the most attuned to Roan’s performance — as she laid her emotions bare, bathed in a cloud of peach-colored light, a hush went over the crowd and remained in place until the end of the song.
Roan closed with one more song off the School Nights EP — “Meantime,” another mournful plea to lost love — and ended her performance with a “thank you” to Vance Joy and a big grin for the people of San Francisco. While the set approached sonic homogeneity with its stream of ballad after ballad, Roan’s vulnerable honesty brought a sense of earnestness that kept it from falling into a rut.
With an audience that seemed happy to race past the openers to get to the main event, this performance might not have been the one for Roan, but if her physical and vocal presence are anything to judge by, then the next one very well might be.