Kali Uchis Steams Up Radio City Music Hall With Sultry, Regal Set: Concert Review

Now that’s an entrance.

The stage for Kali Uchis’ “Red Moon in Venus” tour is bathed in red-pink light, centered around an elevated platform with stairs leading up either side and archways beneath. A gradually brightening, supernova-like light fills the video screen behind it.

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The singer enters the stage, slowly carried by her six dancers, but obscured by the kind of giant frilly feathers you see in old movies, where a luxuriating empress is being gently fanned with them by servants. They scale the steps, gently set her down in the middle of the platform, then pull away the feathers as the crowd shrieks, revealing Uchis standing regally with her back turned, looking at the audience over her shoulder, clad in an all-red ensembled of a halter, short skirt, stockings, sleeves and a pair of towering boots with needle-thin heels. As “Telepatia” starts, she busts some slinking moves while the dancers peel off until one of them returns, delivering her microphone.

Make no mistake, Kali Uchis has arrived.

Photo: Macy Bryant
Photo: Macy Bryant

And like her entrance onto the huge, ornate Radio City Music Hall stage for the first of two sold-out nights at the legendary venue, she’s arrived at her own pace. In the 11 years since “Drunken Babble,” her awesomely titled first mixtape, the Colombian-American singer has been nominated in three unusually far-reaching Grammy categories (R&B performance, dance recording and musica urbana abum), released three critically revered albums and a couple of EPs, scored a huge Latin hit with “Telepatia” and collaborated with Tyler, the Creator, SZA, Gorillaz, Snoop Dogg, Mac Miller, Steve Lacy, Rico Nasty, Kaytranada. And although her refusal to be categorized may have made delayed her breakthrough — her music is a fluid combination of Latin, R&B, pop, dance, torch and hip-hop — she got to this stage on her own terms, something she referenced several times in her comments to the crowd about believing in yourself even if it feels like no one else does.

Not surprisingly, the concert moved at equally unhurried, deliberate pace. There was no band — just her and the dancers. She’d occasionally move in tandem with them, but usually sashayed and swayed and strutted while they created a vibrant frame around her. And although she crammed nearly 30 songs into around 75 minutes — focused largely on her latest album, “Red Moon in Venus,” and her collaborations with Tyler, Kaytranada, Omar Apollo, Daniel Caesar, El General, Lorna and probably others — the rhythms never moved above midtempo and were never, ever in a hurry. It was a very hip-hop-informed set, including just a couple of verses and choruses (or less) from each song before shifting smoothly into the next one, the audience shrieking as each one started and singing along loudly with the first few lines but then fading off until the next one came up.

It was clearly a hot date night for a lot of people in the audience, singing along while gazing into each other’s eyes or swaying together in an embrace, but snapping into don’t-fuck-with-me ode for Uchis’ trademark throwdowns like “Dead to Me” and “La Diabla,” its verses shifting seamlessly between Spanish and English (“¿Papi, no quieres esto?/ All you’re gonna get is un goodbye beso”).

She gave the crowd a long goodbye before the main-set closer “After the Storm” and then was carried off by the dancers as she’d arrived (obscured by feathers), but surprised many by coming back for an encore of the gorgeous “Blue” — which is the greatest Sade song never released by Sade — and exited the stage as a pink sun set on the video screen.

Raye, the fast-rising British R&B-pop singer who’s opening the entire North American tour, brought a different kind of passion to her songs and set, a kind of gushing enthusiasm that was unfiltered in her rapid-fire, heavy South London accent. Accompanied by her tight, classily clad five-piece band, she played a sprawling headlining set in town earlier this year but this one was focused into a tight 45 minutes centered around her excellent, long-percolating debut album, “My 21 st Century Blues,” released in February — but also managed to include a fair amount of communication with the crowd and some quick solos from her band (including a mini-battle between her guitarist and trumpetist). Raye has had a long ascent as well and also spoke of her early years as a featured singer on dance tracks, with label execs trying to drive her into that lane to the extent that she finally exited the major-label system and went indie — and, of course, made the best music of her career.

The choice of Raye as an opener seems more than a little intentional: The evening’s two empowered performers are living proof that talent, self-belief and persistence, even in the face of seemingly overwhelming negativity, can lead to the stage of Radio City Music Hall.

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