No one was properly prepared for the wave of Khalid-mania before it came rushing for Aussie shores. Last year, the then 18-year-old El Paso-local (born Khalid Robinson, and pronounced kul-LEED, FYI) was just graduating high school with a handful of SoundCloud releases under his belt, before his debut single “Location” caught the world’s attention, with some help from fan-and-now-friend Kylie Jenner lip-syncing to the cut on her Snapchat story.
Fast-forward a year and Khalid’s major label debut ‘American Dream’ is certified platinum. As well as his own offerings, he’s collaborated with some of music’s biggest names, from electronic wizard Calvin Harris to EDM figurehead Marshmello and fellow Joel Little-associate and wunderkind Lorde (who he recently supported on tour across North America). The announcement of Khalid’s inaugural visit Down Under was colossal, to say the least — tickets to his Sydney Enmore Theatre stop sold out almost instantly. That venue was soon upgraded to Hordern Pavilion, a venue more than triple the Enmore’s capacity. Still, that wasn’t enough, so a second Hordern show was added, which was also quick to sell out. Not bad for a first run.
The scene was set with a wind-swept Star-Spangled Banner imposed on a huge LCD screen on the stage. In front was Khalid’s live three-piece band. As his drummer launched into an explosive mix of beats, Khalid emerged, grinning to the cheers of the all-ages crowd. He launched fiercely into windows-down track “Let’s Go”, the whole room emphatically singing along to every single lyric from the get-go. With punchy ‘80s synths added to the mix along with a last chorus key change, the track escalated into a high-octane affair, punctured with the appearance of two dancers donning cheerleader costumes for a full-blown Americana aesthetic.
Khalid’s vocals, equal parts gravelly and velvety, proved that the polished production on the album somehow still hadn’t captured the extent of his talent. Each vocal run and lava lamp-like embellishment carried the weight of the raw emotion packaged in his lyrics – words elegant and articulate although they could be lifted straight from a teen’s diary at times. For me, as a twenty-something-year-old, ‘American Dream’ on first listen was a stunning LP pitted in nostalgia, school holiday shenanigans and navigating love in the digital age. Part of Khalid’s appeal is the new dimension of meaning afforded when the listener realises that these vignettes of adolescence are part of his current reality.
Don’t be fooled though – behind more superficial tales of drunken Uber rides, young love and changing seasons, are evergreen themes of loneliness, optimism and desire, packaged with sophistication beyond Khalid’s years. Raised in Germany by a single mum who was serving as a singer for the military, Khalid’s dedication to his craft and his country run deep, and inherently add pearls of youthful wisdom to each offering. He introduced “Saved” as the first song he ever wrote, standing centre-stage to deliver a ballad with volcanic force that sent shivers down every spine, as a tour diary montage flicked across the screens. Steering the melancholy mood, he seamlessly transitioned into an acoustic jazzy arrangement of “Hopeless”, his band proving all-stars with fine sonic details hemming the mix.
My two favourite cuts, “Cold Blooded” and “Therapy” (unequivocally two of 2017’s best songs) had the room in awe, vaunting small touches like added vocals, melody shifts and gritty guitar parts giving them new life. The crowd continue to sing along to memorised melodies and words, chanting Khalid’s “915” Texan area code mid-song without skipping a beat. His preambles to his songs are short, and earnest – charming against his endearing goofy dance moves during upbeat interludes. “How many people here have been cheated on in their life? Personally, I got cheated on very bad. That shit sucked,” he admits, before moving into the transparent verses of “Shot Down” (“I don’t hear from the friends I thought were mine too / But I hold on to the poems I would write you.”). Feels are at boiling point when he dedicates “Angels” to a close friend that passed away just days ago.
Marshmallo-produced banger “Silence” and Calvin Harris’ “Rollin”, both tracks which Khalid lent his vocals to, tie neatly into the mix, solidifying his ability to be dynamic and keep the mood cohesive – though the audience showed no sign of slowing down at any point. He starts rounding off the night with a tongue-in-cheek disclaimer: “…So the show is almost over because I only have one fucking album.” Considering the amount he’s achieved from his first record alone, I don’t think we’ll ever be prepared for what he serves up next.
Photos by Keegan Thomas.