Holy moly! Lorde praises Prince, covers Robyn, gushes with gratitude at the Xcel

Lorde onstage at the Xcel Friday night.

Lorde onstage at the Xcel Friday night. Caroline Royce

Lorde is hardly a natural onstage, and good for her.

Part of 21-year-old New Zealand pop star Ella Yelich-O'Connor’s charm is an earnest awkwardness that contrasts with the brooding intensity of her songs. She’s the quiet kid who unexpectedly lands the lead in the school play and then kills it. So what happens after graduation?

Her instinct to let the music speak for itself, rather than shaping her song selection to tell a specific story and guiding the audience through that narrative, meant Lorde sometimes came across as more a participant in her show at the Xcel on Friday night rather than its catalyst. But her ungroomed enthusiasm made her a compelling stage presence anyway. Also, the music does speak for itself.

Fittingly, Lorde first appeared in the shadows Friday night, a robed, indistinct figure looming upstage in blue light, singing “Sober.” You might even have missed her at first, as her crew of six modern dancers up front captured your attention. Then a spotlight finally found the star, who stepped downstage for “Homemade Dynamite” and doffed her oversized robe to reveal a sheer top over a black bra, with her lower body engulfed in baggy pants.

Lorde’s first world tour, which ended in 2014, passed Minnesota by, an omission she implicitly addressed in her first comments to the crowd. “I have never been in your part of the world before,” she said giddily, adding “We’re here. We’re together.”

That last statement essentially sums up the sentiment behind the songs on her debut, Pure Heroine, which Lorde revisited in the next part of her set. From the exasperated pledge of outcast solidarity “Tennis Court” (“Don’t you think that it’s boring how people talk?”) to “Ribs,” which is about feeling ancient because you got drunk at a high school party (“It drives you crazy/ Getting old”—tell me about it kid), these songs express the inner thrill of finding friends that sullen teens often mask with jaded sighs, all the more effectively because they never quite drop that mask. And when Lorde announced, “This is for the kids who grew up in the suburbs” at the start of “400 Lux,” a celebration of the bonds bored weirdoes form together, the cheer that erupted sounded a little more honest than the equally hearty response earlier when she’d asked who was from St. Paul and Minneapolis.

Visually, the set was minimalist yet effective. What appeared to be a simple stage riser emerged from the stage several songs in, revealing itself as a rectangular box with transparent walls, a kind of terrarium that Lorde and her dancers would enter and exit as the night went on. Eventually, it would lift above the stage and tilt slightly, suggesting peril for whomever was enclosed within. That box also served as a dressing room, as Lorde changed costumes within, visibly but unceremoniously, stripping to her skivvies with no trace of exhibitionism before donning a long skirt and a white T-shirt and re-emerging.

The outfit change highlighted a shift in Lorde’s set, which moved from the adolescent self-discovery of Pure Heroine to the songs from her second (and even better) album, Melodrama, centered around the wild exhilaration of heartbreak that strikes when that same suburban kid hits the city. Lorde’s dancing is always more enthusiastic than expert, but she swayed alongside her dancers during “The Louvre” in a game approximation of the choreography before they hoisted her up to promenade her, prone, around the stage.

“Holy moly! There are so many of us in here,” Lorde said as she perched herself on the stage riser. She shared a couple of Prince stories, after first praising him effusively enough to meet the audience’s approval. She regretted refusing his invitation to a show (it didn’t start till two in the morning, she gasped), but later got to meet him when they were seated together at a table at the Golden Globes. “No one wanted to talk to him before he talked to us,” she said. “And he didn’t say anything.” Then he got up to present an award, and she felt a tap on the shoulder from behind and heard his voice: “So nice to see you.”

Lorde then sang a verse and chorus of “I Would Die 4 U,” accompanied only by piano. She’d clearly hoped the crowd would join in, but we weren’t especially obliging. (I guess that’s why touring musicians stick to “Purple Rain,” as much of a cliché as that’s becoming.) It was a touching rendition, regardless, and a good start to a mini-set of ballads that showcased the strong, distinctive voice of a performer more celebrated for her songwriting than her singing.

After the malevolent “Writer in the Dark,” Lorde was joined by her opening act, the Swedish singer Tove Styrke, to duet on Robyn’s “Hang with Me.” The duo winningly turned a song about maintaining personal boundaries into a pledge of friendship, with Lorde’s head dropping adorably to Stryke’s shoulder at the close. It was a moment. Alone once more, Lorde performed the self-lacerating “Liability,” which became something of the singalong that her Prince tribute wasn’t.

That quiet interlude allowed Lorde to assert a touch more control than she had earlier. Her home stretch began with her career-establishing hit “Royals,” its hook still undeniable, its lyric increasingly clunky and image-conscious. And that oldie was blown away by the double shot of Melodrama material that followed. If “Perfect Places,” an adrenalized anthem to enthusiasm in the face of dissatisfaction, rushed frantically forward, the bitterly ecstatic “Green Light” springboarded into the stratosphere.

That finale was essentially unfollowable, but Lorde did return for a strong encore. It began offhandedly with the taunting “Loveless,” continued with the Melodrama outtake “Precious Metals,” and closed with “Team,” its brilliantly exasperated teen “so there” hook a triumphant call to misfit unity. Lorde’s no longer the underdog from the provinces, and she’ll have to adjust to that soon—a little “holy moly” does go a long way, after all. But so far she’s aging with just the right lack of grace. And good for her.

Click here to see more photos of Lorde at Xcel

Homemade Dynamite
Tennis Court 
Buzzcut Season
400 Lux 
The Louvre 
Hard Feelings 
Yellow Flicker
I Would Die 4 U (Prince cover)
Writer in the Dark
Hang With Me (Robyn cover) (with Tove Styrke)
Sober II (Melodrama) 
Perfect Places 
Green Light 

Precious Metals 

The crowd: Though sales were light, as they have been in many cities, the Xcel wasn’t underpopulated enough to sap the energy of the performance. And though I’d assumed Lorde’s career was carlyraejepsenifing (that’s a word we professionals use to describe the phenomenon of a bona fide pop star transitioning to cult status with older indie fans), the room was rife with under-21s of varying social status.

Also, a sad teen sat behind me for the entire concert, knitting.