Conan Gray is an internet sensation and pop star-on-the-rise. He has amassed a large following online, been professionally releasing music for the past year, and recently embarked on a tour around the United States, drawing in fans around the country. A seemingly endless line of teenagers swirled around the block surrounding the U Street Music Hall, each teen adorned in stripes, merch, and primary colors. These teenagers traveled from all over the DC area (or the country, in some cases), and each and every one of them was there to see Conan.
While Conan’s opener, Girl in Red, was too sick to perform, fans filled the time by getting to know each other, singing and jumping along to the music playing. Music from Lorde, the Jonas Brothers, Shawn Mendes, Paramore and The 1975 filled the music hall. Longtime fans clearly recognized that these were songs Conan had shared in “favorite” videos on his YouTube channel.
Fans were even frenzied at the idea of Conan stepping on stage. As the crew began to appear on stage to simply set up, fans jumped and cheered. When Conan finally ran on stage, there was a sonic boom of screams.
Conan opened with “Generation Why,” his telling of the American youth experience, rich with imagery and personal experience. His singing was focused and passionate. Technique-wise it was similar to the professionally recorded EP version. He held out the mic for fans to contribute and fans shouted the lyrics back, not missing a beat. He was visibly excited to be there, and kept the energy high.
After the song ended, Conan shared the fact that last time he was in DC he was eleven years old and that he “went to see dinosaurs, and had a great f***ing time!” Fans lost their minds at this, as he is known for being very polished and clean, so hearing him swear (off of Snapchat and Twitter) was jarring and shocking for some followers. Also, who doesn’t love dinosaurs?
Conan then continued into “Greek God” with a teasing pout and a coy tone, simply stating, “This next song is a song about mean people.” For this song, he introduced sassier choreography. He often grabbed the mic stand and shook his head at the crowd with a little smirk that almost appeared to be a dare. With the fierceness of his voice, even his moves that included tip-toeing seemed sharp and dark.
From the moment the first few chords of “The Other Side” began, fans were shouting and singing along. “The Other Side,” one of Conan’s first songs, was only recently professionally released, and was all about trying to get out of his small town. Conan then wordlessly continued with “Grow”, another one of his firsts, singing of growing up and achieving life goals, similar to the overarching theme of many of his songs. While “Grow” was not included on his EP “Sunset Season,” it was incredibly fitting for his show. “Grow” was written about leaving his small town, and going on to bigger things. With Conan on stage and under the lights, it was clear that he had “made it out.”
Conan opened his most emotional song “Lookalike” by explaining the depth of the passion he felt for someone and how everyone else is just a “copycat.” Without any prompting, fans held up little blue paper hearts in front of their cell phone flashlights. Fans all around were crying big fat black mascara sobs that left smears all over their faces, at the sheer depth of his voice and lyrics. Conan’s voice was deeply emotional on this song, and the impressive runs that he included on “erase you from my mind” highlighted his expressive capabilities.
Conan then sang, “I Know A Place”, a song never professionally released. He sang this one on his YouTube channel two years ago, sitting in front of a field back in his home state of Texas. He added some slight note changes and his drummer increased the percussion in the background, but the song was almost completely unchanged, leaving the secret place untouched.
Conan took a moment to himself onstage, asking if anyone in the audience had ever felt, “really, really, really, really lonely?” he then called for a cheer for loneliness, and the crowd happily obliged. He talked about his experience of feeling deeply alone over the summer and just wanting his friends. He talked about the kind of friends where you can sit in perfect silence with them, and then just show them something on your phone. He then said, “If you’ve got friends here tonight, give ‘em a big fat hug! And if you’re not here with a friend tonight, you are my friend, I love you so much!” He also sang an unreleased song, “Comfort Crowd.” It’s a bittersweet ode to the best of friends, and if he chooses to professionally release it, it will be one of his most heartbreakingly beautiful songs to date.
“Idle Town” was his first “professional” song, recorded in a closet in his bedroom in Texas. He asked if anyone was from a small town, and he took a moment to speak about how he spent so long trying to get out of his idle town, and how it inspired so much of his work. Before the song began, he took a cowboy hat from someone in the audience, sharing that every time he’s about to sing that song, a hat “makes its way over”. He then joked, “a true king knows his crown”. Seeing “Idle Town” preformed in person with Conan’s voice live and him on a stage, was surreal for so many.
Conan brought the house down with his rendition of “Sk8er Boi” blended with his own version of that same message, “The King.” The lighting was a pinkish red for “Sk8er Boi” but as Conan dropped to the ground, the lights shifted blue and he rose again a moment later singing “The King”. While I had previously written that “The King” sounds like “an intense spin on Taylor Swift’s 2008 classic ‘You Belong With Me'” I could not have envisioned a better mashup than “The King” and “Sk8er Boy.” Conan was loud, fierce and simply electric.
Conan looked out onto the crowd and asked if anyone is in a relationship. He then proceeded to offer sarcastic congratulations, and declare that the next song for those not in relationships. Conan sang “Crush Culture” and gave the sassiest and most fun rendition of it imaginable. Fans were screaming and pointing, while relishing the last song of the night.
Beyond just the music, Conan managed to create a sense of community and a friendly atmosphere, reflective of his sunny persona and message of kindness. I interviewed one girl who flew from South Carolina to be there who spoke of how he pulled her through a dark time in the hospital. Before the concert, fans were chattering and giggling together, and throughout the night, fans could be seen swapping Instagrams and forming fast friendships.
Conan Gray is a born performer. He captured the entire essence of the American teenage experience, from his flag bandana, to his “Home Of The Free” shirt similar to ones that parents dress their children in for suburban Fourth Of Julys. He has an innate ability to draw in a crowd and keep the energy the same from the moment he stepped on stage to the moment he runs off. This is a star who will be performing stadium tours someday, likely soon. At the U Street Music Hall, Conan Gray was closer to Georgetown, DC than he was to his hometown of Georgetown, Texas – he most certainly has made it to the other side.
Featured Image Credit: Helen Ehrlich