What does it mean to feel EVERYTHING? Is it tracing “Lipstick” on the mirror as the darkness closes in? Is it gazing through the opacity of life to unveil the “Transparent Soul” within? Or is it standing in a packed ballroom, swaying as sound waves pour off the stage and wash over your soul? The answer seemed to linger in the Regency Ballroom on Sept. 18, as Willow Smith explored the depths of human emotion with a stellar live set in San Francisco.
Earlier this year, Smith, who performs mononymously as WILLOW, released her pop-punk album lately i feel EVERYTHING, or lifE. Though she only made the transition from R&B to pop-punk fairly recently, her album carried an undeniable air of authenticity, further augmented by features from popular genre mainstays Avril Lavigne and Travis Barker. As one of the first performances of her lifE tour, WILLOW’s San Francisco performance solidified the young artist as a multidimensional powerhouse to be reckoned with.
With gold trims lining the ceiling and dainty chandeliers hanging overhead, the Regency Ballroom stood still in its elegant splendor as fans excitedly trickled into the venue. From wall to wall, they stood in eager anticipation, and finally, WILLOW’s entrance elicited an immediate roar. Fluorescent blue lights spilled over into the darkness, and there she stood, triumphant with her newly shaven head and grungy black dress.
WILLOW started with a bang, bringing out hits such as “Transparent Soul,” “Gaslight” and “Grow.” The upbeat, pop-punk tracks gathered even more momentum with the vivacious live band and WILLOW’s seemingly boundless vocals. Even as she ran, jumped and conquered the stage, she attacked each note with a punch. Her voice effortlessly soared to new heights with additional riffs and belts, her ad-libs offering a touch of artistic flair.
Throughout the night, the quality of WILLOW’s production emerged as a highlight. The overpowering guitar riffs on “don’t SAVE ME” crashed like waves over members of the crowd. The audience then drowned in the warped instrumentals of “Come Home” and “Naive,” caught in an irresistible current of vulnerability and honest contemplation.
Midway through her set, WILLOW brought out co-creator Tyler Cole, with whom she released The Anxiety in March 2020. The crowd erupted during the laid-back “Meet Me At Our Spot,” and the floor shook during the unabashedly angry “Fight Club.” Even as WILLOW and Cole sifted through an impressive range of emotions, they always matched each other’s energy. As they leaped across the stage, twisting their bodies in ways not previously known to be humanly possible, their chemistry was palpable.
WILLOW is not one to shy away from exploring the realities of anxiety and existential dread. However, even as she addresses these issues, she never relinquishes her belief in love. As a strong believer in affirmations, she even had the audience repeat three mantras: “I am love. You are love. We are love.”
Toward the end of her set, WILLOW surprised the audience with a punk rendition of her 2010 hit “Whip My Hair.” The red strobe lights and grungy guitar riffs catapulted the track straight into the heart of the pop-rock renaissance. WILLOW may have grown 10 years older and shaved her head, but she still possesses the youthful energy that contributed to her early success.
But WILLOW saved the greatest gift for last: the much-demanded encore performance of “Wait a Minute!.” Energy pulsated from wall to wall as the crowd screamed each lyric. After more than 1 ½ years of quarantine, people couldn’t help but sing, dance and embrace the collective vitality that emerges only from the energy of a concert crowd.
WILLOW has undoubtedly emerged as a true student of lifE, able to synthesize a beautiful balance between existential anxiety and an incredible propensity for compassion. By the end of the night, audience members truly felt EVERYTHING — but mainly, they felt love.