Review: Nelly Furtado’s voice still enchants, despite small homecoming crowd

There are precious few certainties in the music world. But one that never fails is the belief that you can’t coach talent.

“You either got it, or you don’t,” Nelly Furtado sang Tuesday night during a verse from Say it Right, her No. 1 hit from 2007.

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On this occasion, her long-awaited hometown return, Furtado proved she’s still got a voice, indeed. A dozen years after she turned pro, her singing still has the ability to enchant and entertain, song in and song out. If she has one true weapon, it’s her eternally youthful pipes. And when she puts them to proper use, the results are impressive.

Too bad only a small number was there to see it.

Furtado, 34, kicked off her cross-country tour at the Save-on-Foods Memorial Centre, a concert which drew 2,353 followers. For the biggest-selling artist of 2007, a two-time Grammy winner with multiple No. 1 singles on her docket, that’s an almost unthinkable tally. But it’s a radically different world in 2013, that’s for sure, and Furtado is clearly feeling the effects of time away from the spotlight.

She hasn’t been through these parts for a headlining concert in five years, and in the intervening stretch a new generation of singers and performers — not to mention fans — have made their way to the fore. She isn’t exactly the odd woman out these days, but Furtado is no longer the pop princess of the past, a post which I believe she’s happy to have abandoned.

Too scattered to be pigeon-holed, too dramatic to be pinned down, Furtado doesn’t fall under just one category. And as much as that can be a good thing, when it comes to succeeding in a world of quick-hit videos and here-today radio singles it’s a very bad thing.

Furtado opened her show with a pair of singles from her new album, followed by two of her time-worn hits. She would repeat this yin-yang approach for the duration of her 90-minute performance, occasionally with so-so results. Her success or failure almost always came back to her voice, and her specific use of it.

On the spry Be OK, which featured an assist from the original writer (and opening act) Dylan Murray, the first artists signed to Furtado’s Nelstar Records imprint, she brought her voice down to a dull roar; thrilling it wasn’t. But for her astonishing rendition of Turn Off the Light, she soared on the back of bluesy groove-rock.

Despite her catalogue of past hits, Furtado chose to sing a number of covers. The jazz staple Quando, Quando, Quando; a scatty cover of Missy Elliott’s Get Ur Freak On (which she dedicated to the Landsdowne Middle School jazz program and her former instructor, Fred Hagen); the Steve Miller Band’s Fly Like an Eagle; and an out-of-place rendition of Madonna’s Like a Prayer.

There was a truly odd bit when the Grim Reaper came out, fully dressed, with a bucket full of “bucket lists,” as written by fans in attendance. Furtado read some of them, with middling results. The song that followed? Bucket List, of course.

That wasn’t the only moment in need of editing. When her bandmates held up signs that read “La la la la la,” urging the audiences to sing, well, “La la la la,” it felt like a parody.

Furtado has never been one for performer-audience banter, and she isn’t any more savvy with her stage speak then she was a decade ago. The bulk of her concert chatter ranged from “How ya doin’?” to “Having a good time?,” but her voice — always her voice — more than made up for it.

A mid-set run that included a faithful but lovely I’m Like a Bird and an empowered Força, during which she played ukulele, reminded fans why she became so famous in the first place. But few songs on this night could match the splendour of her most moving ballad, Try, during which her voice was nothing short of spectacular. “All I know,” she sang during the song, “is everything is not as it’s sold.”

That much is true — about life, and about Furtado, too.

Think she’s simply a pop star? Think again.

mdevlin@timescolonist.com

Review

What: Nelly Furtado with Dylan Murray and Jessica Tyler

When: Tuesday night

Where: Save-on-Foods Memorial Centre

Rating: 3 out of 5 stars

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