‘I’ll never be the same again,’ says Halsey after show with strings at NJPAC (REVIEW, SETLIST, VIDEO)

by JAY LUSTIG
halsey review strings

@iamhalsey

Halsey performs at NJPAC in Newark, June 21.

I didn’t really know what to expect when I heard that Halsey was going to be doing a show with a string ensemble at NJPAC in Newark, as part of the North to Shore Festival. Sometimes, when pop or rock stars have worked with strings in the past, they’re there as a kind of prop, to add extraneous ornamentation to the sound and make the show look and feel a little classier, or just different. To make the music appear bigger than it is.

That was not the case with Halsey, however. At the first of her two shows with strings at NJPAC, June 21, it was clear that she and her arrangers, whom she lauded onstage but didn’t identify by name, have thoroughly reimagined her songs, presenting them with new, complex and often stormy arrangements.

There was nothing casual about this project. Nor was it the kind of musical adventure that anyone was expecting from Halsey, less than a decade into her career as an edgy, consistently hit-making pop star.

“When I was growing up (in New Jersey), this was not on my bingo card, for my life … and certainly not in this nice of a suit,” she said, referring to her tuxedo. (She took off the black jacket early in the evening and performed the rest of the show in a sleeveless white shirt and a black tie.)

The show, which was a benefit for arts-education organizations throughout the state, started with an eight-minute overture. Yes, an overture, like you might hear at a Broadway show, by the eight string players, who sat in a row onstage, visible only from the waist up.

They stayed there throughout the nearly two-hour concert, backing Halsey on 21 of her songs, including two, “Bells in Santa Fe” and “Ya’aburnee,” that she never has performed in concert before. After the overture, they were joined by a guitarist and a percussionist, with the percussionist occasionally switching to bass. Halsey herself occasionally played piano, and some taped or offstage music also was added to the mix on some songs.

One more musical element: On many songs, it seemed like the whole audience was singing along — loudly, and with no prompting.

It might have been Halsey’s first time doing these songs this way, but the new arrangements sounded polished, and her vocal performances were sharp. If I didn’t know otherwise, I might have thought that she and the musicians have been doing shows like this one for years — even though it was such a strange experience for her to be doing it, she said, that she felt like she was having an out-of-body experience.

@iamhalsey

Halsey gets emotional at NJPAC.

She didn’t say much between songs during the first half of the show, but talked more and more as the night went on, giving the impression that she wanted to get a lot off her chest and, once she started, couldn’t stop.

Playing with strings is “literally the worst thing that’s ever happened to me,” she joked at one point, “because now I don’t want to get onstage without an orchestra. Which is not a small expense, you know.”

She made it clear that this is not just a random musical experiment, but something she feels she needs to do, as an artist.

“This show is supposed to be about letting the music shine in a way that it’s never really gotten to before, and that’s becoming a significant priority for me, as I’m getting older,” said Haley, who is 28.

“If people aren’t hearing the words, then it’s meaningless. … I can have a song that plays a hundred million times on the radio, but if it doesn’t say anything, and nobody’s listening anyway, what the fuck does it matter?”

She marveled at her own commercial success, mentioning that two of her singles, “Without Me” and her “Closer” collaboration with The Chainsmokers, were two of the first 100 in music industry history to be certified “Diamond” by the Recording Industry Association of America (meaning they sold 10 million units, each). “Without Me” was in the evening’s setlist, of course, as an encore. But the show also gave her a chance to revisit some lesser known material from her ever-growing catalog.

“It’s been a real long time since I’ve played some of these songs,” she said. “But I can’t help feeling like this is the way they’re supposed to be heard, you know?

“Especially here, of all places,” she added, referring to her Jersey roots. An Edison native, she went to high school in Washington (Warren County).

Later in the show, she talked about seeing her brother dance in “The Nutcracker” at NJPAC, years ago. And in the show’s emotional peak, she introduced, to the crowd, a high school teacher who she said had had a huge impact on her, inspiring her to believe in her own creativity.

I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that this was a show that Halsey’s fans will never forget. Nor will Halsey herself.

“Wept like a baby in my home state onstage last night,” she posted on Instagram, June 22. “Full on ugly cried. Music is magic. Night 1 of the Orchestra summer shows is complete, and I’ll never be the same again. Thank you.”

Halsey has several more string ensemble shows planned, in Florida, Indiana and California.

@iamhalsey

Halsey in her tuxedo.

Here is the show’s setlist and, below it, a video featuring most of the show:

Overture (by string octet)
“The Tradition”
“Bells in Santa Fe”
“Castle”
“Lie”
“Walls Could Talk”
“Killing Boys”
“You Should Be Sad”
“Bad at Love”
“Colors”
“Graveyard”
“Clementine”
“100 Letters”
“Forever … (Is a Long Time)”
“I Hate Everybody”
“Young God”
“Ashley”
“Gasoline”
“Ya’aburnee”

Encore:
“Nightmare”
“Without Me”
“Hurricane”

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