Suppose one were to say “nice to meet ya” to Niall Horan; a highly intriguing game could be created plucking out traits from his various eras. Which one makes an appearance? There’s the boy bander with brittle blonde hair and laughter heard from the other side of the internet connection, a young adult who is guitar plucking himself into a town where his acoustic hums whisper of a love flickering out, then sailing into eventual heartbreak weather. This one is an emergence from those who have come before, taking a nod from the naughty global track “Slow Hands” to dust behind the shadows and bring forth a confident artist who knows exactly how to engage his listeners. For someone such as myself who’s not a die-hard One Direction fan, it’s hard to see him as anything but the one-man ticket into an intimately electric show. Usually of his shows, one filled with thousands of faces all waiting for that second where his eyes meet theirs, were traded for a virtual arena packed with 130,000 tickets as he took to Royal Albert Hall on Saturday, November 7.
The establishment holds 5,500 people. If everyone were to dress up with somewhere to go, then it would’ve calculated to 23 sold-out shows with the leftover spilling out onto a half-full twenty-fourth. However impressive, it’s not his ever-growing fanbase nor making for the highest viewed music live stream of this year by a western artist; rather, behind it all was a love-struck note to his crew. For an hour, those unsung heroes took us out of our living rooms into a realm sparked by live music. Unfortunately, they get little recognition, especially during a time plagued by a pandemic leaving several people jobless. It was that sentiment that leaked into “Dear Patience,” the first pivotal number one hears as darkness surrounds Horan, searching for the light at the end of the tunnel just as many of those who are suffering are.
It’s also something never leaving his mind as it filters during the breaks. In an open, raw moment full of camaraderie and a conversation we wouldn’t be privy to if we were seated amongst thousands looking up at the stage, his guitarists jokingly asks him if he’s nervous, to which he responds, “Yeah, I am.” If one missed that, it certainly echoes in-between songs; what would’ve been jovial commentary about each turns into him admitting he’s had a “nerve wracking start.” He knows that he’s laying his heart on the floor for everyone to witness, but instead of covering it up, he owns it. He goes on to continue concerning the hall, “it’s pretty eerie.” Being in that room with just 30 other people, and the event’s build-up means a lot is riding on a night like this. He essentially has his crew’s mortgages and lifestyle in his back pocket, but though he’s a little too hard on himself, everyone else is just looking at him in appreciation.
One of who makes her way onto the stage upon hearing the transitional music for their conversational duet “Moral of the Story.” She’s flown 5,437 miles, quarantined for two weeks. While this is a massive mark for Ashe’s career, having broken away from small shows to an enormous audience, it’s not about the attention or what this could bring to the song. But preferably two friends and their love for Stevie Nicks, Guinness beer, and music that can bare one’s soul. When the music strikes, everything inside me was overridden with a pulsating, energetic rise of anticipation. It’s so in tune with knowing that the best part is about to happen, but you’re also in fear because what if it doesn’t meet your previous expectations? Of course, it always does. The silence leaks into the pause after Horan announces Ashe, and it’s here where one wishes they could creep inside of the screen only to give that much-needed round of applause we’ve been dying to since hearing it months ago.
The lights do what we cannot. It plays its own secretive dance; it’s through vocables, and the climaxing oohing like a harmonized chess match against each other that we see more orange tones. Director Paul Dugdale, a name running with the likes of poppy turned alternative mega-superstar Taylor Swift since managing her Netflix Reputation concert film, has done a brilliant job making each performance its distinctive own. This one is no different. You can tell how much those two love each other when up on stage. Still, Horan lets Ashe have this one. The song will be her own “This Town,” having written out a career that will be one to watch, but it’s also from her personal story. Only she gets the poetry between the lyric breaks, the subtle changes between each verse, the delicate arrangement against a volatile backstory. She utterly shines, and as she falls more into it, belting it out as her head is knocked back with eyes closed, she knows how special it is truly is.
Just like that’s her blaring gem, “Still” will always be his emotional tune forecasting a tale of finally admitting you’re unable to run from the one you want the most. If you were to listen to the track and then compare it to this live version, it would be a seamless edit full of puncturing emotion. Someday I’d love to hear an acapella of it. Just strip away the band with all that’s remaining: Horan, fluorescent blue of lights, and lyrics declaring to a mysterious someone that his heart is very much entwined with theirs. But if we were to zap back into the current where we hear the gentle strums coming from the violin, it’s magnetic. Horan has two sides to him, there’s this jovial personality that knows how to have fun, and then there’s the sensitivity that wears his heart on his sleeve. That’s why whenever he wishes to be an artist with longevity, it’ll come true because he belongs in two arenas. The more longing Horan has once again dropped his heart into Royal Albert Hall’s vast opened spaced room where it has nowhere to hide. Furthermore, the whistles are a nice touch; it’s a nudge to the track and the echoing rush of vulnerability.
Then comes the dance proportion. His emotions are splattered across unused seats, spinning the lights around as its disco shine upon his pants that would easily be pulled from buddy Harry Style’s wardrobe. In a string of uplifting, sexy numbers, “Small Talk,” “Nice To Meet Ya,” and “Slow Hands.” Take the raspiness in this voice, for example. It’s such a detour from the sentimental tones before, but it belongs to these songs. The band’s involvement feels laidback. Although we’re not able to feel reverberation from the selected instruments coming into our bodies, we’re able to see the high on everyone’s faces.
As a side-effect, we feel at ease completely forgetting who we’re watching the live stream with. Coming up with new moves, perhaps inspired by the pointing finger, he always throws our way. Horan’s not only taking in the band member’s around him and how his interaction with them would tie into his stage presence, but while we’re not there, we’re in the back of his mind, finding tiny ways to start that teasing conversation with us too. He’s come such a long way from being the boy with the guitar who had no idea how to move his arms to now using his entire body as a vehicle for the music’s electric current. When the lights dim, showcasing a spinning room full of light up stars and the drums start harmonizing with the guitars, it’s like an earthquake of live music. Your heart feels both full and wistful for needing to be there — inevitably taking us to the last number on the sultry-inspired list, one that’ll always bring a giant spotlight to Horan’s confidence. Perhaps it’s because “Slow Hands” is the song that was heard filtered out of radio systems when he ventured out on his own due to the giant success interlaced, or its lyrics are a stark change from his emotional numbers. Either way, his charisma is on full blast.
As he’s out of breath from dancing around the stage, he straps his guitar back on and slips into the sentiments behind the night. You can’t help but be proud of him, this genuine Irish musician that’s able to keep one enthralled for hours on end as that final ode snuck so closely upon us. He thanks his band; you can tell that each one has a bit of his personality, a tie towards him. Maybe it’s by John Bird cheekily calling out to his mom in the previous interval or hearing claps from other people in the room and therefore reading the humbling recognition coming from them too. There’s nothing much going on in this track, “Flicker,” that is, just Horan’s on a stool as he nurses his guitar with darkness surrounding, but that’s the point of it. We’re not meant to really pay attention to him but rather the crew, those seldom seen who create this world saturated with morose ballads and slinky little earworms. It’s their moment as they pack this one up.