Live Review: Charli XCX @ Northcote Theatre

3 March 2023 | 12:40 pm | Esther Linder

"She was most in control, dynamic and oozing insouciance when belting out her strongest hits."

Pic by Henry Redcliffe

Pic by Henry Redcliffe

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A night out with Charli XCX would never be normal. 

A concert for the girls, gays and theys, on her last headline show for her latest album Crash, the British pop star swung between hyperpop chaos and emotional balladry at Melbourne’s Northcote Theatre as she revelled in her status as both a cult icon and multi-hyphenate.

Sheathed in black with reflective sunglasses and a slicked-back ponytail, the singer was in command from the get-go. An extra platform added to the back of the stage created a tiered scene for her to work with, supported by two backing dancers and a screen that moved between her Twin Peaks-inspired XCX branding, club neons, and rapid images of temples, moons and cloud forms. 

We watched as the constantly changing visuals, excellent lighting and well-thought-out stage design allowed her to work the space in a way that filled the entire room. In contrast to her WorldPride performance, where the sprawling stage made it feel like she was sometimes running from one side to the other or swallowed by its breadth, Northcote Theatre’s intimacy perfectly suited her style and mode of performance. The ornate rooftop turned into a reflection of a club, with dripping red lighting switching into intense strobe sequences as the night moved on. 

The setlist focused on the album at hand – the critically acclaimed #1 record Crash – as well as managing a comprehensive overview of her extensive back catalogue. From originals such as Boom Clap to cult classic Vroom Vroom, Charli moved across the stage in lockstep with her accomplished dancers; a refined yet gritty feel to their choreography. 

She was most in control, dynamic and oozing insouciance when belting out her strongest hits such as Beg for You or 1999, making use of the screen behind her to feature images of much-loved collaborators Christine & The Queens and Caroline Polachek during New Shapes, while also filling parts of their vocals live. Her history of underground club performances and extensive use of vocal distortions is at the fore in venues like this, where she is able to command attention and work to her own timing rather than to the beat of another drum. 

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A heavy reliance on pre-recorded vocal tracks made it feel at times that the aesthetic superseded the actual singing, but the Charli XCX signature brand of chaotic hyperpop mixed with club sweat and grime was ever-present. Her very English, raw and rough persona shines through when she is hyping the crowd, but fades into a sweet vulnerability when she talks about the rollercoaster ride of touring.

I also noticed small but clear homages to ballroom and her massive queer fanbase in the choreography of her backing dancers as well as the way she related to the audience between songs. The instant classic Boys was “for the gays” in a fashion that reminded me of her remarks at the Sydney performance that were it not for this community, her career would have not happened.

I wondered more than once why she was booked in at a barely 1000-capacity space (albeit a great one) when she had only just recently played to thousands more at WorldPride in Sydney. The question was never quite resolved, though it seemed like something Charli herself did not choose, with a barbed comment about the “tiny venue” halfway through the show. If not quite an arena act, her fans would have absolutely made more than one show at the larger capacity Forum Theatre in the CBD feasible. She paid tribute to the “day one” people who did sell out the show almost immediately. 

Though she has been a pop icon for several years now, I wondered what her next visit to Melbourne would look like. After writing songs for everyone in the business and then making multiple critically acclaimed LPs and albums, surely more recognition than the absence of a BRIT award is set to follow?

Until next time, Charli XCX seemed to say, as she left the stage, turning over the night’s chaos into our own hands.