SAN FRANCISCO — Joji made one of the best albums of 2020. Nectar showed tremendous growth for the Japan-born artist, showing that he was capable of getting beyond his start as, first, an Internet personality and, second, a lo-fi bedroom pop artist. Unable to tour the gold-certified Nectar due to the pandemic, Joji instead staged one of the more intricate and highly produced livestreams of lockdown.
But his first chances to perform the new songs in front of fans have come as a headliner at his label 88rising’s L.A. festival Head in the Clouds, as well as a select run of shows in L.A., New York and San Francisco. Each of the three shows sold out within a few hours, prompting a second show in each market. Joji performed at the Warfield on Saturday for the first of two shows, where the night began with high expectations that weren’t quite met.
The buzz was clearly high ahead of Saturday’s show. The line to even get into the building stretched clear around the entire block. The end of the line was feet away from the front. Joji’s stage production also seemed impressive, rising from the stage floor about a fourth of the way toward the ceiling, with two levels connected by a staircase. Each stage tier had its own set of LED screens. It was a huge opportunity to put Joji forward to his fans, but for most of the 60-minute performance, both he and his band performed in silhouette—and that’s when they were backlit. When Joji was in front of the staircase, it was difficult to spot him on the stage at all.
And his songs, while intriguing and both musically and lyrically complex on record, were often broken up with cliched declarations of “How you doing, San Fran!?” “Let’s gooooo!” or “Yeah bitch!” When combined with the general inability to see him or his band well, it was plausible that the performer on stage was a slightly more caffeinated Jesse Pinkman from “Breaking Bad.”
The performance, while brief, lacked momentum. Every time Joji would reach a particularly interesting hook, chorus or bridge, that “How you doin’ San Fran?” would deflate the moment, as did several instances of crew members walking onto the stage to launch T-shirts into the audience. It was a sign of a performer who’s still learning how to best get his art across on stage. The fans who were so excited entering the building were still smiling by the end, but their pogoing had turned into swaying.
While Joji’s stage act is still in progress, the songs themselves are already there. He opened with “Sanctuary,” a soulful song that sounded nothing like lo-fi bedroom pop. He got right to introducing his band during second song “YEAH RIGHT” before quickly transitioning into “Daylight,” built around a funky rhythm section and a guitar-led sound—a new hallmark for Joji on Nectar.
Lulling and melodic ballad, “Mr. Hollywood,” had an arrangement true to the album, with piano, synths and a prominent snare propelling it forward. While most of the set consisted of songs from the new album, a couple of the show’s highlights consisted of older material, such as the beautiful “I Don’t Wanna Waste of My Time” and “Demons,” off 2017’s In Tongues. If only he performed the former without a “San Fran” shoutout. He also punctuated that song with a rattling scream that didn’t seem to fit the vibe of the moment.
Nectar R&B opening track “Ew” was also fun, as Joji sang emotively while backed just by a piano. He showed just as much musical range on “Like You Do,” shifting from talk-singing into lush melody.
The upbeat “Can’t Get Over You” briefly had people hopping around. Killer jazzy keyboard and bass parts were the highlight here. “Pretty Boy” and “Gimme Love” were also poppy and danceable. The high point came during the atmospheric “Your Man,” during which he took a phone from a fan and sang into it. “Run” was also terrific on stage with a rock solo by the guitarist during which the musician got his own spotlight (one of the few times you could see the face of anyone in stage).
After a brief intermission, Joji and his band returned for a couple of songs including older fan favorite, “Slow Dancing in the Dark,” off 2018’s Ballads 1. It was an imperfect performance of close to perfect songs.
Joji was preceded for about 30 minutes by rappers SavageRealm and Lil Toe, who are getting their start the same was as Joji did—as internet artists known for their outrageous subject matter.
SavageRealm (Nick Onkoba) came out first, carrying his own microphone stand. Backed by a DJ, his set consisted of some comedy and emo-adjacent hip-hop, as well as an audience interaction aspect that had him talking at fans as much as rapping or singing.
“Before you’re all crying later, who wants to have some fun?” SavageRealm said leading into “Aggressive Masturbation.” The trap tune included a call-and-response line that should probably be avoided here. There were quite a few other short agree numbers, such as “IGNIT,” but he showed range on the mid-tempo “Afternoon” (“Make some noise if you’ve cried yourself to sleep before,” he said by way of introduction) and a more melodic song with climbing synth strains that he said he was performing for the first time.
Another new one, an unreleased song, featured ’90s West Coast hip-hop beat and flow. The set was part concert and part variety show, with SavageRealm asking everyone to boo him to “get rid of all the negativity” and pitting two fans against each other in a battle of Rock Paper Scissors.
Then Lil Toe came out, and the mysterious ski-mask-wearing rapper made SavageRealm seem like Barney in comparison. The two then blasted through some truly savage songs like “Ukrainian Freestyle,” “Skeletons In My Closet,” the bass-heavy “Pipe Down” and more.
“I got a softer song for you tonight, because I’m tired and it’s hot here,” Lil Toe said before performing his best-known song, “AMMO.” In fact, in addition to his ski mask, he was also wearing a hooded jacket. According to internet legend, he never takes that mask off.
The crowd began chanting for Joji before Lil Toe and SavageRealm had even walked offstage.