Show Review: How To Dress Well at the Berliner Festspiele 29/06/14

It’s not every day that you get to watch an album bloom–quite literally. Last weekend saw How to Dress Well, aka Tom Krell, take to the boards at the Berliner Festspiele as part of Foreign Affairs’ “Performing Pop” series. True to the festival’s missive, Krell presented his third album, “What Is This Heart?”, embellished with costume, a string ensemble, and modern dance choreography: a detailed exploration of the broader possibilities for his intellectual, introspective, and inimitable take on pop.

Released only four days prior, “What Is This Heart?” is itself an expansion of Krell’s experimental, R&B-tinged falsetto confessionals. A true mission statement, it’s an album that’s more “How To Dress Well” than ever before: nostalgic, intimate, and ultimately uplifting. “What Is This Heart?” sweeps a spectrum of love and loss, laced with searingly personal anecdotes and illustrated by Krell’s charismatic, soaring falsetto.

Known for his genre-spanning mixtapes (the most recent combining Joni Mitchell, Rich Homie Quan, Taking Back Sunday, and Justin Bieber, no less) and his philosophical academic explorations (Krell’s currently partway through his dissertation), the Festspiele show promised a unique opportunity to witness How To Dress Well at full steam, with Krell’s creativity and vision brought to life in an unusual, singular manner.

When the lights came up, the Festspiele’s Große Bühne was a stage in motion: Krell plus his microphones–one steeped in effects–stood atop a plain white podium, offset by smaller white blocks and plain, wooden chairs. Opening with the sweeping strings of “See You Fall,” Minna Choi’s rearrangement of “What Is This Heart?” for an ensemble is glittering and heightened–and when Krell’s vocals eventually kick in, everything falls into place. Choreographed by Brendan Fernandes, five dancers languidly started to deconstruct and rebuild the set, providing a poignant accompaniment to Krell’s storytelling.

The set followed an emotional journey, rather than the chronology of the album. We were led by the hand through the dark, inquisitive, and semi-redemptive depths of “2 Years On (Shame Dream)” and “A Power” before set highlight and single “Face Again” stormed into play.

Bathed in green light, Krell then stood alone, the surrounding set having been fully cleared by Fernandes’ dancers. The track’s almost dub undertones were rendered even more brooding, with the synthesized backing vocals on the recorded track replaced by charged, aggressive strings. Climbing into the night’s emotional climax, Krell slammed a fist against his chest, pleading “I don’t think you know what’s best for me/ no, I don’t even know what’s best for me.”

There’s a pause after, as audience and stage ensemble alike took a moment to breathe. Then, the sun came up. Left-side lit, the mood turned–“Pour Cyril” and “Childhood Faith in Love” blurred into each other, swirling in a new-found optimism; the repeated “everything must change” was mantra-like, infectiously joyful.

It was then that the absent dancers returned, carrying armful upon armful of leafy flowers in full bloom. And, as they set to work carpeting the stage with pink, white, and purple pastels, Krell climbed down from his podium. During the rapturous “House Inside,” he stood front and center to sing mic-less, his usually vulnerable-sounding voice ringing high and pure throughout the theater.

The stage was now full to burst with flowers, the boards barely visible. The blooms kept coming, though–a reported 10,000 flowers–and bouquets were handed down and passed back throughout the audience. With the smell of summer sweeping the room and more flowers than anyone could handle, there was laughter from both the floor and the stage.

Final song and lead single “Repeat Pleasure” proved the perfect closer: a euphoric track that’s pop at its very purest. A beaming Krell sung as if he’d found the answer to all of life’s questions, and it was a genuine fist-in-the-air moment as he hit a drawn-out high for the Whitney-esque “even broken my heart will go on.” Flowers in the air, smiles all round.

Later tweeting, “one of the best nights of my life,” How To Dress Well’s Festspiele show was an indisputable triumph for pop. Taking the concept of “How To Dress Well” further, higher, and larger, Krell opened up his introspective art to create a multifaceted performance that was innovative, beautiful, and elegantly articulated. #blumenfüralle

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