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Kehlani at Fine Line: How a crowd, venue ruined a great show

At least six smartphone captured Kehlani at Fine Line

At least six smartphone captured Kehlani at Fine Line

On Friday night, I attended one of the best concerts I might see this year, but I didn’t enjoy it at all.

Curated by Greenroom Magazine, Red Bull’s latest Sound Select show featured the perfect lineup: locals Dizzy Fae and Lexii Alijai, plus headliner Kehlani, a cultishly beloved/Grammy nominated 20-year-old R&B artist. Normal tickets sold for only $3 — but the experience was barely worth that.

The wind blew as I crossed glittery, ice-slicked streets and arrived at the Fine Line. The venue's queue reached far back, wrapping around the Third Street corner and then some. 7:25 p.m. Thirty-five minutes ‘til doors.

One hour later, doors had been open for awhile, but the line had moved about 10 feet. Fast-forward another half hour, and people started leaving. Rain fell on the crowd; numbness crept into our feet. Two hours and 15 minutes after joining the line, I finally entered the venue.

Only VIPs could access the balcony, so I joined the dance floor, which already teemed with people. Dizzy Fae, a teen alt-R&B artist from St. Paul, had almost finished her set, but her last song — “Aftermath” — sounded good. 

St. Paul rapper Lexii Alijai was fantastic, performing “Mourning After,” “Mines,” and more from recent mixtapes Joseph’s Coat and Same Struggle. Different Story (with Shaun Sloan). At 17, she’s learning how to talk with crowds and move around the stage. But it's obvious she's primed for big things. 

The crowd was a major issue on Friday. During Alijai’s set, I surrendered all my space to people pushing toward the smoking door. I glowered at a guy with vodka-Red Bull breath when he vocally disrespected Lexii; then, he grabbed my butt. I found some girls I’d met in line, but their eyes were panicky from the shoving. Meanwhile, a drunk girl toppled onto the floor. 

Following Alijai’s performance, I thought about heading back. But at a packed Fine Line show, there’s barely even room. Maybe the crowd would shift, or maybe I would make it up front (where, bizarrely, it tends to be more roomy than the middle). After the short break between sets, nothing had moved. The headliner made her entrance.

Oakland girl Kehlani is lithe, influential, and smart. She’s earned her nickname, Lani Tsunami, for with force-of-nature talent; she hustles like few others. This year, Grammy voters nominated her mixtape, You Should Be Here, for “Best Urban Contemporary Album,” and she’s up against the Weeknd, the Internet, Lianne La Havas, and Miguel.

I expected to see great things at her concert. The only problem: I couldn’t actually see. Still stuck in the middle of the floor, I caught glimpses of whirling back-up dancers every once in awhile. But tall people blocked the way, and phones floated everywhere. One guy used my shoulder as a tripod.

At least I could hear Kehlani. Her voice is warm, recalling the sunny album art from You Should Be Here, but her lyrics can be pure ice (see: the killer line from “Did I,” “Shorty got zero percent on the publishing / ‘cause she don’t write the shit she say”). She’s a pro, telling stories (“I have been a non-weed-smoker/non-drinker for 13 days now […] this is my sober self”) and stirring the crowd (“Let’s beat the system!”).

Self-empowerment psalm “Bright” brought short-lived peace to the crowded floor, and even Kehlani called it “kind of [her] favorite.” Later in the show, she heartened fans to encourage each other, modeling how easy it is to make someone’s day. “Hey, beautiful,” she told a few people up front, making small talk with them from stage. “Yes, Sweater! You’re beautiful!”

Slow songs “Til The Morning” and “The Way” triggered all the dirty dancing. The crowd loved Kehlani’s Drake cover (“Legend”). She flew through all but two songs from YSBH.

When Alijai jumped back onstage to rap her “Jealous” verse, the microphone didn’t work. She was visibly shaken, but Kehlani gave her a hug. Although the moment wasn’t perfect, Alijai was.

At the end of the show, “Did I” boosted the mood (and foretells great music to come). But the joy wore off quickly, and I left the Fine Line overstimulated. How could I have just seen a fantastic concert and barely enjoyed it at all?

I normally don’t complain about venues, but lately, the Fine Line has tested my patience. At Allan Kingdom’s birthday party earlier this month — also hosted by that club — I thought the unmoving line must have been a fluke. It was not. 

Online commenters have also brought up similar logistical issues. And on Friday, I was not quite 400th in line, according to the Red Bull wristband team. If it took 100 minutes for me to get in after the doors opened, the venue let in fewer than four people per minute. It shouldn’t take that long to get fans through.

I wanted to love Kehlani’s show — and I still enjoy her music. But I looked out over the audience on Friday, and I just saw anxious, jam-packed bodies. She deserved better; so did we.

Critic’s bias: Before the show, I told my photographer I was four-stars-out-of-five excited. He was seventeen-stars-out-of-five (but he didn’t have fun, either).

The crowd: Super diverse! Brown people outnumbered white people for the first concert of my life!

Overheard in the crowd: An “Ignition” singalong to pass the time in line.

Random notebook dump: “Lexii and Tiiiiiiiiiip on that selfie game. “ Below that, I wrote, “Wow, so many i’s.”

Setlist:

You Should Be Here

How That Taste

Jealous (feat. Lexii Alijai)

Wanted

Yet

Niggas

Legend (Drake cover)

Get Away

Til The Morning

Bright

Unconditional

Runnin’

Down For You

Be Alright

Tore Up

The Way

FWU

Alive

Did I