Nao Le Belmont, Montreal QC, September 16

Nao Le Belmont, Montreal QC, September 16
Photo: Steve Gerrard
One of the most exciting up and coming artists in R&B, Nao arrived in Montreal Friday (September 16) with the bar set sky-high. And yet, from the opening swells of "Intro (Like Velvet)," it was clear that the UK soul singer was going to sail effortlessly above it, with inches to spare. She really was that good.
The set drew largely from her genre-traversing For All We Know, a sonic boom of a debut that is as catchy, groovy and downright fun as anything else released this year. Nao's sound on record owes a great deal to the neo-soul innovators of the early 2000s, but features a taught, pop sheen that gives the music a dynamic and distinctly modern feel. It's a style that requires plenty of your typical R&B pocket, but also a bit of exuberance to keep you on your toes. It's part Badu, part Britney, if you will.
Nao's backing band absolutely nailed it. Too often, artists whose music relies heavily on synthesizers absolutely fall apart when they introduce live musicians into the proceedings. Not so with Nao — her cast knew exactly when to lay off and when to apply pressure. Even the drums, normally the scourge of synth-favouring artists, provided the necessary thrust without being overbearing. Particularly impressive was the sweltering strut of "Trophy," which turned up the heat even higher with an oh-so-slinky extended jam. Nao introduced her backers as "the best band in London," and that may not be far from the truth.

Yet the band's wisest move was giving the singer the required space to do her thing. Nao's voice is a revelation, an airy soprano that oscillates freely between fragility and raw power. Take "Apple Cherry," Nao's best ballad, which cooed lightly in the verses before flying up into the stratosphere for the chorus. Nao's flawless pitch and inflection are just as spellbinding live as on the record, perhaps even more when she really goes for it, as she did often tonight. Reportedly shy and reserved in her personal life, she commanded the stage like she was born on it, with every turn of phrase suggesting an artist who knows exactly who she wants to be right now, and executing to perfection.
There were too many highlights to count. The confident grooves of early tracks "Happy" and "Inhale Exhale" got the crowd moving just long enough for the heart-melting "Adore You" to seal the spell. Tracks like "Bad Blood" and "Girlfriend" prove that Nao has perfected the art of the cloudbursting chorus. When the show finally came to a close with a rollicking rendition of Mura Masa's "Firefly," expectations had been well and truly blown out of the water.
Up-and-coming no more, Nao is the real McCoy.