SAN FRANCISCO — In a year when cynicism is widely available, and often quite convincing, a pop star’s optimism invokes a healthy skepticism. On record, Rex Orange County wavers at times from tween-pop frivolity to self-reflective song-craft, highlighting his personal struggles as he emerges into adulthood and celebrity. To hear a 21-year-old celebrate challenges in the name of maturity and self-validation should be reassuring. His performance Thursday at the SF Masonic Auditorium confirmed Alexander O’Connor’s instrumental abilities and sincerity.
In a concert heavy on neo-soul vibes, Rex Orange County led a five-member band. The arrangement featured live horns and a fully-loaded rhythm section, lending a fuller sound to the songs than on the recorded versions. A musicologist would have enjoyed an inner satisfaction at Rex Orange County’s abilities at the electric piano, where he rolled out strands of complex, melodically linked chords and some impressively smooth interludes.
Beginning with the directness of single “10/10,” from his latest album Pony, Rex Orange County dashed off a series of admittedly highly digestible pop songs and some fine piano work. A big hit with the younger set, and a convincing live performer, he had the girls cheering from beginning to end. O’Connor played the brief and bouncy “Laser Lights” and “Face To Face,” with their hooky lyrics, and finished the more low-key “Stressed Out” with a neat piano run.
The songs stayed within a fairly prescribed range of lightweight love songs and jazz-influenced soul. Rex Orange County’s nasally singing voice, in contrast to his speaking baritone, recalled 1990s boy bands and Justin Bieber. One could detect in the singer and multi-instrumentalist a trace of the emotional urgency of Dashboard Confessional and an ambition to finesse a ride-along with the dreamier side of Stevie Wonder.
Following “Pluto Protector” a curtain fell and Rex Orange County took a five-song solo detour. He began with elegant piano composition “Every Way,” which showcased his penchant for chordal subtlety and refined songwriting. For “Corduroy Dreams,” a song with origins in O’Connor’s deep past, he switched to electric guitar. A jumpy ditty with roots in jukebox jazz, the song served as a paean to the girlfriend who keeps him sane. A whistling interlude didn’t deter the 21-year-old from seamlessly nailing gracious chord changes on the guitar.
Then he was back at the keys for “Happiness,” reedy voice on full blast as he compelled the audience to shine a light from their cell phones. The many lights from the balcony and dance floor approximated a heavenly host as the curtain fell again, revealing the returned band. Confetti bathed the crowd from overhead and shimmered in the pastel rainbow of stage lights as the full band launched into “Never Had The Balls.” A slight “Four Seasons” segued quickly to the Stax soul-indebted “It Gets Better.”
Rex Orange County himself seemed entirely in his element throughout. Without a hint of nerves or self-doubt, he carried his material and relied on his charisma and instrumental prowess. Smiling with a mixture of bashfulness and conviction, he basked in the adulation, twice affirming his love and appreciation for the crowd.
In the middle of the final song, O’Connor stopped the proceedings suddenly. In an admirable move, he made everyone put their cell phones away “so we can just talk, without something in between us.” It was part of Rex Orange County’s stated intention of preserving the mystery of the performance for only those in the room. Fans were happy to oblige him. The band wrapped up with a swinging party ending that sounded like something you’d hear from the live band on a late-night talk show.
Although Rex Orange County has absorbed some criticism for his naive-pop leanings, he came across as encouragingly sanguine with a taste for grim determination. Performed live, his songs benefited from the loudness and atmosphere of a full room. With three full-length releases already under his belt and a busy touring schedule, Rex Orange County’s work ethic and commitment to success are self-evident.