A music festival is a weird place to see any band. If a concert is supposed to be an artist transporting you into their world for an hour or so, a festival set is sort of the opposite of that. But every festival performance is predicated on the shared illusion that it is that and not just another line on a poster intended to make some big corporation a few bucks, that this is it, this is what the people are here to see. It’s a magic trick that requires a precise alchemy to pull off, a specific mix of energy coming from the performer, the crowd, and the space itself. When the balance is off — usually through no fault of the performer’s — you end up with something like James Blake playing a beautiful set for bored teens at Governors Ball on Friday. But when it goes right, you get something like Kali Uchis’ late-afternoon set at the same festival yesterday.
That’s partly because the American Eagle Stage, where Uchis was scheduled to perform, feels sort of secluded on the festival grounds, located in a far corner of Randall’s Island Park and closed in by a roof around the stage. Partly, it was because of the crowd, one of the most diverse I saw at the festival, which seemed genuinely excited for Uchis, chanting her name before she even appeared onstage and imbuing the air with a youthful, anticipatory electricity. And partly, of course, it’s Kali Uchis herself, an artist so completely in command of her own aesthetic that even without much of a stage setup, she still managed to make the space feel like hers and hers alone.
The Colombian-born singer’s debut album, Isolation, was one of the greatest surprises of 2018 for me. She’s been lurking on the fringes of the mainstream for years now, working with people like Gorillaz and Tyler, The Creator and Snoop Dogg and Bootsy Collins. I knew her name, but somehow her actual music slipped under my radar. Isolation, however, was impossible to ignore: a heady, intoxicating brew of pop and old-school R&B and funk and soul and a million other genres. And even if her performance at Gov Ball wasn’t exactly a coming out party, it only affirmed the fact that Uchis is a natural born star. She’s already a gem; now comes the polishing.
Uchis strutted out, clad in a fringy silver top, skirt, and sunglasses that made her look like Cleopatra in space, to the strains of “Speed” from her 2015 debut EP Por Vida, transformed with the help of her new live band. At her last festival set, at Coachella just after her album came out, her guitarist failed to show up, and the set was marred by some sound issues. This time, she didn’t have those problems. Backed by a tight band consisting of a different guitarist, bassist, drummer, and keyboardist, her genre-agnostic songs sounded more muscular than on-record, punctuated by pounding drums, thick basslines, and humid flashes of Santana-esque guitar. It was the band’s first time performing this set, and it was Uchis’ first time performing Isolation cuts “Feel Like A Fool” and “Flight 22,” period, but you wouldn’t have known it from watching.
After those live debuts, she played the Damon Albarn collab “In My Dreams,” turning it from a bedroom synthpop curiosity into the old-school Motown girl-group song suggested by its infectious melody. “Nuestra Planeta,” which isn’t really a political song, took on a new political edge as the only song sung entirely in Spanish in a world where Donald Trump is president and just a few miles away in Midtown Manhattan, a lawyer can go on a racist tirade when employees at a restaurant speak Spanish to each other. And even without Bootsy Collins or Tyler, The Creator, who Uchis brought out for a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it verse at Coachella, the funky “After The Storm” was a highlight.
At times, I couldn’t help but wonder what she could do with a bigger budget, a whole stage that really was hers, to mold according to her own vision. But just watching her, it’s clear that Uchis is a natural performer. Although her quiet, confident charisma isn’t too showy, she does have some slick dance moves, and every time she broke out into a body roll, the entire crowd erupted into cheers. She already knows she’s a star. Now she just has to bring it to fruition. “The sun’ll come out, nothing good ever comes easy/ I know times are rough but winners don’t quit,” she sings on the chorus of “After The Storm.” It had been a cloudy, overcast day, but for a few glorious minutes after her set ended, the sun came out. She was right.