Kimbra shows Regency Ballroom what it means to be human

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Almost three years have passed since Kimbra treated the Bay Area to her eclectic performance style. And yet, San Francisco was Kimbra’s first California stop on her Primal Heart tour, which she kicked off at the end of January despite the album’s release being pushed back to April 20. On Feb. 13 at the Regency Ballroom, the crowd excitedly chanted and clapped for the headlining singer’s imminent arrival after the opening band left the stage.

The crowd’s engagement made Kimbra’s entrance all the more riveting as the lights dimmed and she walked onstage, claiming her spot at the turntable setup. She then impressed concertgoers with her escalating vocals on the show’s opening song “Version of Me,” off Primal Heart.

The versatile New Zealand-based singer then embarked upon a showcase of new songs, including her most recent single, “Human.” The track epitomizes the core of Primal Heart, boasting lines such as “Life’s got me on trial” and “Got a heart that’s primal.” On the refrain, Kimbra sings, “This is what it means to be human,” its haunting repetition backed by myriad synth beats. As the flashing lights highlighted her figure onstage, Kimbra periodically appeared as only a silhouette. While she belted the song’s high notes, the crowd watched in awe, utterly mesmerized.

Kimbra refrained from solely performing tracks off Primal Heart. After giving the room a four-song taste of her new music, Kimbra moved into “Settle Down” — the first track on her 2011 album Vows. The audience roared in familiarity as she crooned the a cappella introduction and settled into the familiar lyrics, a stark contrast to her recently-developed futuristic style.

Having returned to her roots, Kimbra paused. She took a deep breath, speaking into the microphone to greet concertgoers with a smile. She went on to thank her band. “I love them so much,” she said, “that I put them in cubes.”

The group stood behind her in two large cubes, each covered with only three “walls” of transparent white fabric. This fabric also served as screens for the various projected images  — ranging from guns during “The Good War” to gold roses during “As You Are” — that accompanied her music, each projection timed to its respective song’s beat.

“Settle Down” was far from the only throwback. Much to the excitement of the audience, Kimbra performed classics such as “Love in High Places” and “Two Way Street.” During a particularly poignant acoustic rendition of “Past Love,” she stepped away from the elaborate turntable setup and picked up a red electric guitar, impressing everyone with her simple but powerful strumming as she transferred to the more classic medium.

It isn’t difficult to appreciate her mastery of contemporary synth pop, which shone through whenever she returned to newer songs like the evocative “Everybody Knows” and “On Top of the World.” The striking beats of the latter emphasized how she has evolved as an artist — yet this evolution was built upon a solid foundation of classic tracks, celebrated on tour with the same enthusiasm as her new album.

Kimbra is her own DJ, frequently moving between dancing wildly across the stage and then returning to center stage to move the turntable platter in time. She spent most of the night with one hand on the table and the other on the microphone, exhibiting her diverse musical and performance skills that make this tour possible.

Her brave artistic choices and insistence on pushing past boundaries — whether through her various vocal techniques and incredible range, or through her unrestrained synthetic beats — encompass the message of her new album. Despite her songs’ heavy reliance on electronic instrumentals, Kimbra’s vocals remain unedited, ringing out raw and clear. It’s a beautiful marriage between progress and tradition that results in a beat impossible to not to dance along with, especially when Kimbra herself can’t stand still onstage.

By the time the last lo-fi beats of encore song “Real Life” — which will be the last track on Primal Heart — were dwindling down, it was clear to everyone in the venue that Kimbra’s talents have earned her a rightful place “on top of the world.”

Contact Alex Jiménez at [email protected].