Under an arc of light and framed by her holy trinity of disciple-like dancers, Rina Sawayama didn’t have to invite her audience to worship her at Oakland’s Fox Theater the night of Nov. 21 — from the moment she emerged onstage in knee-high denim boots and a matching cowgirl hat, everyone was already wrapped around her finger.
“I got one question for you, Oakland. Are you ready to hold the girl?” the Japanese-British singer-songwriter asked, the opening instrumental to her hit “Catch Me In The Air” filling the venue. “And are you ready to hold the girls?” Grabbing her chest playfully, she was met with audience screams of adoration. “We’re gonna go through a beautiful journey … We’re gonna slay so hard and we’re gonna dance together, okay Oakland?”
Sawayama did indeed follow through with her promise to slay. Imbued with an otherworldly quality, her performance was uplifted by her loyal dancers Summer Jay Jones and Chanté, as well as by the wind machine blowing her hair and dress back in perpetual ethereality.
Caught up in the swirl of an onstage storm, the strobe lights, wind and drums during “Hurricanes” created artificial lighting and thunder that elevated Sawayama to god-like status. This holiness reached rapture in “Holy (Til You Let Me Go)”; silhouetted against her twisting red form, her dancers twirled and continually built off each others’ energy as Sawayama let loose in her swirling euphoric cloud nine. Similarly exhilarating, “To Be Alive” featured deep pink and blue lights that projected tableaus of Sawayama’s shadow as she danced, each snapshot capturing not only her frozen pose but also her freedom and joy at being alive. “Flowers still look pretty when they’re dying,” she sang, her dancers tossing flowers into the audience.
Glowing like an undersea creature, her tentacle-white gown self-described as “couture jellyfish” — one of four costume changes — only contributed to Sawyama’s unearthliness. The haunting opening notes of “Phantom” paired with ghostly blue lighting lent her an inhuman quality, calling back her earlier blue-green headbanging bop “Frankenstein” — zombie arms stretched out in front of them, the trifecta strutted among the chaos of clouded colors and drum solos.
“I’m gonna slay a little bit harder,” Sawayama said, introducing a mash-up of “LUCID / Beg for You” that lit up the venue in magenta. During “Bad Friend,” strobes and wind whipped her costume around in ecstasy. From the silver spotlights and pop girl confidence of “Comme Des Garçons” to the grand finale glow of “XS,” one could almost imagine they’d returned to “The Dynasty Tour” of earlier this year.
Most unforgettable was “STFU” and its infusion of queer rage, as anger already present in performances such as the green-laser-grid-lit “Your Age” took on an elevated quality. “I wanna f—ing hear you scream. Louder!” Sawayama yelled as middle fingers raised to the sky.
Queer emotion is not a new topic for the pansexual pop star, who came out in 2018 with the release of her love song “Cherry.” However, it took on new meaning during last Monday’s show, which she dedicated to the victims of the Colorado shooting at Club Q just two days prior in which five people lost their lives.
“In the wider world, our safe spaces are constantly being attacked and it f—ing sucks,” she said, introducing acoustic ballad “Send My Love to John,” her emotion palpable under the soft orange glow of thousands of phone flashlights.
In true Sawayama fashion, her performance culminated not in queer rage or pain, but in colorful celebration. Rocky red curtains behind her, the moment Sawayama emerged for her encore wearing a sparkly cowboy hat and boots, the venue was engulfed in fiery festivity. “Let’s go girls!” she said, jumping into the familiar, iconic choreography for the era’s lead single “This Hell.”
In one final stunt, Sawayama split the crowd down the middle in a call-and-response competition, proving her biblical divinity by literally parting the seas. As she exited the stage, cowboy hat cocked and hip canted sassily, Shania Twain’s “Man! I Feel Like A Woman” rang out around her, exultation echoing through the venue in her absence.