All photos from @ChloeBxo
Koko is one of London’s most splendid gig venues; a converted theatre at the foot of Camden High Street that plays host to an eclectic selection of artists. Its limited capacity of just 1,500 meant that tickets for Halsey’s second London show sold out almost immediately. Fans queued outside the venue for hours beforehand - a thronging crowd of teens in skater skirts, of which an unusually high number had dyed turquoise hair.
Inside the venue, parents loitered by the bar or sunk into the top balcony’s plush leather armchairs, most already armed with one of the most expensive pints London has to offer. Some nodded along resignedly to the set from support Matt Wills, a singer-songwriter with several acoustic guitars and an endearing mop of curly hair. Rhyming ‘Halsey’ with ‘ballsy’ in a freestyle rap, he laid to rest one of the biggest questions surrounding the night’s headliner - how to pronounce her name! A girl in Ashish light-up trainers stood on tiptoe for a better view as he snuck in a cheeky cover verse of ‘New Americana’, getting a bigger singalong even then catchy closer, ‘Lights Out’.
Opening with an album track is always risky, but the wall of noise that greeted Halsey’s entrance to ‘Gasoline’, suggested she had nothing to worry about. An enchanted crowd matched her word for word whilst drums and strobe lights elevated the song to a new level. “London, how are you doing?” she yelled. “You’re a beautiful crowd,” she added, before launching into ‘Hold Me Down’. With the whole entire audience yelling along to “This is what I live for,” it wasn’t hard to believe.
Whilst Halsey is a solo artist, it’s hard not to see her as the face of something bigger. Her manner, her commitment to being vocal on issues she considers important, her stage presence - all these are reminiscent of frontwomen from backgrounds rooted less in pop, and more in rock and punk. She’s not concerned with whether people think she’s beautiful or likeable; every song is a head-shaking exorcism. “Welcome to the fucking Badlands!”
‘Castle’, one of the album’s high points, was drowned out somewhat by the audience screaming over the choral samples. The contrast was lost, and with that the nuance that takes a pop song from good to great. It was followed by slow-jam ‘Drive’, which is reminiscent of Lana Del Rey at points, though Lana Del Rey’s live performances fail to match Halsey for consistency. The pace picked up again with a sun-drenched rendition of ‘Roman Holiday', after which the crowd chanted her name until she lost her composure for a second, turning away, abashed.
One of the album’s least accessible tracks, ‘Haunting’, was completely transformed in its live incarnation. Live and recorded vocals mixed seamlessly, and by the end the crowd was as on board as they had been with singles and more upbeat tracks. The same was true of ‘Control’, with its note perfect vocal leaps and unexpected string samples. The mood shifted. This audience of teen girls somehow felt eerie - almost malevolent. Is this the “awful energy” of the lyrics? Either way, there was something ritualistic about everyone yelling “Please stop, you’re scaring me!” in perfect unison. The song closed with Halsey bashing at a cymbal, and when it was over it was almost a relief. The tension that had been held eased, but it became clear that Halsey was a performer capable of holding us all in the palm of her hand without even trying.
‘Ghost’ was followed by oldie ‘Is There Somewhere’, prompting deranged screams from the die-hard fans. It’s warm and engaging, and as it built it became apparent that Halsey was going to attempt to crowd-surf. A lesson many artists learn the hard way is that this is almost impossible when the majority of your fans are young women. Halsey didn’t make it very far, returning to the stage for ‘Colors’ after a single attempt. This moment was the closest the crowd came to a polite mosh pit as she climbed the speaker-stack, delivering the song’s mildly cringe-worthy spoken word segment without a hint of irony.
“I wanna take you guys on a trip,” Halsey began, introducing next track ‘Hurricane’. “I wanna take you down to Brooklyn.” She took a huge gulp from her water bottle and sprayed the front rows with it, all punk frontwoman all over again, but perhaps more of a rainstorm than a hurricane. The lyrics were personalised for this performance - “I went down to a place in Camden...” - which drew one of the loudest screams of the night, only beaten by the one that greeted the final song of the set, ‘New Americana’. Marijuana is illegal in the UK, very few members of the audience had probably ever been high, and almost all of them were far too young to have been raised on Biggie or Nirvana. Is it a good thing that they’re being raised on Halsey instead?
Halsey certainly doesn’t pretend to be any kind of role-model, but is a consummate performer whose music is admirably honest. She returned for an encore consisting solely of ‘Young God’, performed silhouetted against the shifting strobe light backdrop. An a cappella singalong swept into a thunderous drum solo, and like that, it was over. The crowd began to throng out as parents at the back started looking for their kids. “Everyone knows every word,” one father remarked, “It’s almost religious.” His daughter and her friends surfaced, hyped on the crowd’s energy and struggling to find words for the experience. “She made the album better,” one of them enthused. It’s clear from her tone that she hadn’t thought that would be possible.