‘This night is for you.’ A night in the stars with Carly Rae Jepsen

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Carly Rae Jepsen. // photo by Anna Perry

Carly Rae Jepsen
with Empress Of
Uptown Theater
Friday, November 4

The lights go dark in a crowded gothic theater, and a giant, luminescent, talking moon with a familiar voice begins going over what to expect.

Like the creation from Méliès’ “A Trip to the Moon” if it been made by Pixar, the wide-eyed 3-D animation, full of finely rendered shadows and craters, is proclaiming herself “the ambassador of love,” “a comfort if you need one,” and reassuring everyone tangled on the floor and seated in the balconies “everything is going to be OK.” The moon knows the secrets of all — “even you,” she jokes, with a knowing glance to the left side of the crowd — but doesn’t hold that against us. Tonight, our lunar guide declares, is a night of escapism.

None of us question it, standing here in the aura of her glow. For she is the “mirror of truth.”

If you need to feel something tonight, I offer you a safe place to feel whatever it is you need to feel…This night is for you. Count down with me.”

As audience members shouts down from five, the image projected on the screen disappears for a blink of a second before popping up to add one more thing.

This love isn’t crazy.”

We scream because we know whose voice this is — we’ve always known — and who’s about to step out in front of a packed house at the nearly 100-year-old Uptown Theater, to play the song she just named, released on a 2020 album of B-sides better than most artists’ A-sides.

This is Carly Rae Jepsen.

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Carly Rae Jepsen. // photo by Anna Perry

By the time the real Carly Rae walked out on Friday night, a burning red sun now at her back like the “The Lion King,” the crowd was firmly in her grasp — bowing down, in dancing devotion, to our sun-and-moon goddess. To those of who have listened to her music for years, knowing her as a songwriter with an infinite well of sunny melodies and irresistible grooves, she has more than earned this kind of pop-star entrance. She performed “This Love Isn’t Crazy,” from Dedicated Side B, to an overjoyed reception for an artist whose fan base cuts through lines of society.

On Friday night, a diverse cross-section of people stood side by side: Gawky tweens in Carly Rae T-shirts, many of them in the tow of their elder millennial or young Gen X parents, only a few looking down at their phones. People in neon clothing, eyes half-closed, lowered heads swaying with abandon, treating the show like a rave, or a spiritual experience. Couples holding each other during the tender moments, pumping their fists together for the anthems. Unassuming dudes like me in jeans and a random band T-shirt, comfortable dancing with the knowledge no one cares what it looks like.

In our age of political polarization, where we get so caught up arguing about our beliefs we often do nothing about the real underlying problems, Carly Rae’s shows are an example of togetherness and community, representing a more idyllic world that’s maybe beyond our grasp.

Or maybe she just makes really fucking great music.

Changing wardrobes at intervals, Carly Rae commanded the stage with the confidence of a seasoned veteran but the joyous energy of someone who still gets a thrill from performing, even amid a national tour that soon will go global. It’s been 15 years since a 21-year-old Jepsen auditioned for Canadian Idol with a guitar slung over her shoulder and a self-written song called “Sweet Talker,” an anniversary she has spoken about in recent weeks promoting her recent album, The Loneliest Time, released on October 21. She’s working through life in her songwriting like she was then, a kind of catharsis.

“Music is therapeutic,” Jepsen said on Friday introducing the 2015 song “Your Type,” about a one-sided romance that doesn’t come to be. “Sometimes I feel like I get the most healing from writing about the most painful thing — like, for example, being friend-zones. Who here has been friend-zoned?”

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Carly Rae Jepsen. // photo by Anna Perry

From the start of her career, Carly Rae’s music has brought people together. She launched into stardom more than a decade ago with a strings-and-synth earworm — you know the one — so widely played it sparked a viral phenomenon, wherein families, baseball teams, U.S. soldiers recorded themselves lip-syncing the meet-cute lyrics inside of moving vehicles, or planes, and then uploaded the videos to YouTube. It was an endearing moment in the 2010’s time capsule but only hinted at what the young, earnest songwriter was capable of, and what she would do next. “Call Me Maybe” was the platform for Jepsen to make 2015’s Emotion.

Her third album, after 2008’s Tug of War and 2012’s Kiss, was an impeccably produced, endlessly re-listenable, bubblegum-pop extravaganza, rightly considered by those in the know as a masterpiece. Follow-up records, including Emotion: Side B (2016), Dedicated (2019) and then Dedicated Side B (2020), have showcased a continuing interest in different sounds, from different eras, while delivering polished pop songs best enjoyed in headphones or vibrating subwoofers. She shows no signs of slowing down, seven records in, at age 36.

The Loneliest Time meets the bar all other Carly Rae Jepsen albums have lived up to: Put it on and you’ll find yourself coming back to certain songs, wanting to hear nothing else but that one, until finding a new one. The record, written during the solemnity of COVID lockdowns, focuses on love and sadness, anxiety and longing, against breezy, 80’s-inspired hooks. With the help of frequent collaborator Rostam Batmanglij, Jepsen carefully deploys live acoustic guitars, conga drums, and horns alongside the expected bevy of synthesizers. It doesn’t stray too far, stylistically, from what she’s done before; it doesn’t have to.

Who knows why, in the decade that has passed since “Call Me Maybe,” Jepsen hasn’t had as many songs in the Hot 100 as industry peers like Taylor Swift, or Dua Lipa, or Ariana Grande. Many people, despite her ongoing output of pop jams, say the same thing when I recommend her: “The ‘Call Me Maybe’ girl?’”

Back in 2012, riding the success of the single and songs with Justin Bieber and Owl City, she played the much-larger Sprint Center to crowds of people who probably knew her best for a song or two and nothing else.

Along the way, she found her audience, and began playing smaller venues with more character like The Uptown. We’re so much better off for it.

A night in the stars

I forgot how beautiful the inside of The Uptown is — delicately carved wood hugs the rafters; mustached and robed sculptures, molded in the Italian Renaissance style, are perched high above the floor; the ceiling is black like the night sky, as it was designed to, back in 1928.

Jepsen’s kitschy visual cues from The Loneliest Time matched the scenery nicely.

Puffy clouds made from what looked like massive cotton balls hung from the ceiling above the stage. A disco ball did, too, reflecting pings of light across the floor and the balconies. A circular screen rested in the middle, playing clips from her music videos, or animations of things like sprouting plants, strutting cats, and kaleidoscopic colors. Stars twinkled in the background.

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Empress Of. // photo by Anna Perry

Before Carly Rae stepped out on Friday, opener Empress Of, the stage name of Lorely Rodriguez, used the surroundings more sparsely. The Honduran-American singer strutted around the stage with only a single DJ behind her and a couple of tall rectangular mirrors, reflecting her own image and that of the crowd. Her music got bodies moving — a delicious combination of airy dancehall beats and R&B hooks, her voice soaring whether singing in English or Spanish.

“We’re just two girls on tour opening for Carly Rae Jepsen,” Rodriguez said in reference to her DJ. “In front of amazing fans. I want to say a quick thank you for being so opening.”

After Jepsen opened with “This Love Isn’t Crazy,” she went straight into “Run Away With Me,” the horns-blaring first track from Emotion, performing the bop with giddy energy and organizing a full-crowd sing-along. She played much more from Emotion that brought the house down, the record now far enough in the past these songs are starting to feel like old, familiar classics. I listened to Carly’s classic in college when it came out, at the urging of a friend who told me CPJ was the real deal.

That friend was with me from out of town on Friday night, along with other pals, family and old acquaintances I wasn’t expecting to see. Because everyone loves Carly Rae Jepsen.

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Carly Rae Jepsen’s sax player. // photo by Anna Perry

We grooved jubilantly through all those college-era classics — through the titular “Emotion,” one of my favorites, along with the charging “I Really Like You,” “Boy Problems” and “I Didn’t Just Come Here to Dance.” The slow-burning ballad from that album, “All That,” produced by Dev Hynes, was one she acknowledged she wasn’t expecting to play on this night but had to include. One of her slowest songs, it’s also one of her best.

Her dynamic performance of songs from Dedicated and Dedicated Side B, from “Too Much” to “Want You in my Room,” “Stay Away” to “Comeback,” had me making mental notes to revisit them. New songs did, too, especially the impossible-to-resist “Sideways,” the dating-app-saga “Beach House,” the Classic-Carly anthem “Surrender My Heart” and the sweeping, romantic “The Loneliest Time,” the second-to-last song that brought everything together.

Her band — a guitar player, keyboard player, bassist drummer and a couple of backup singers — left the stage briefly before and came back in golden, five-pointed star costumes. They tried to get back into place, restricted slightly by the bulky outfits.

“We’ve got to work to do,” Carly said, in a glitzy pink two-piece. “Are you ready?”

All photos by Anna Perry, who you can find on Instagram @annaperryphoto, as well as on Facebook.

Carly Rae Jepsen

Empress Of

Categories: Music