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On eve of album release, Tori Kelly puts voice center stage at Fillmore

The Baltimore Sun
At the Fillmore Silver Spring, Tori Kelly proved why she's a pop songwriter to watch.

At the start of her headlining set Friday night at The Fillmore Silver Spring, Tori Kelly greeted the crowd with humble words and an acoustic six-string.

“I’m just a girl with a guitar / trying to give you my whole heart,” the 22-year-old California-based singer-songwriter crooned.

Kelly knows who she is, and that self-assuredness has raised expectations for her debut album, Tuesday's “Unbreakable Smile." Her debut album’s lyrics paint a young woman who is unapologetically herself, in spite of her place in the pop-star industrial complex. (Kelly auditioned for “American Idol” in 2010, and shares the same manager as Justin Bieber.) But on Friday, she bypassed pop’s typical smoke and mirrors — stage production, costumes, backup dancers. Instead, Kelly's vocals were the centerpiece.

To kick off Friday’s packed show — the largest venue yet on her “Where I Belong” tour — Kelly jumped into the addictive, jazz-inspired “Expensive” off her new record, starting a trend of soaring easily into every high note. Kelly, a California girl with charm as big as her hair, belted her way around the stage with melismatic grace for approximately two hours with audience-beloved tunes from her previous EPs and songs from her forthcoming album.

It took roughly two songs for Kelly to warm-up to truly working the stage, but by the end of the show she’d be on her knees doing electric guitar riffs with her bandmate. Her set was a mix of lively, sassy pop songs, acoustic guitar-based ballads and a few fun covers — all embellished with a subtle gravelly quality and peppered with vocal acrobatics that at once lack pretensions and elicit praise from audience members like “Slay, Tori!”

During and after the album’s title track, Kelly made one of several seemingly prophetic musical references to fame. In the title track she aspires to “use my name for good”; In “Confetti,” she reminds herself to take increased attention “one step at a time”; and in “Funny” she sings, “It's so easy to lose all the meaning of who you are.”

This could all seem presumptuous on a debut album if she didn’t have the talent to back it up, but she does. Unlike Lady Gaga’s fascination with fame on her first album, Kelly doesn’t seem attention-hungry. She grapples with how to handle celebrity responsibly, singing in “Unbreakable Smile,” “Who knows, maybe I can sell out shows without taking off my clothes / God made me sexy I don't care if only I know.”

In the new bouncy track “Anyway,” she sang, “Well this is the only Tori that I know how to be,” and the audience cheered, hoping it’s true.

Even more refreshing than her authenticity was her gratitude. During periods of overwhelming noise from the crowd, the singer had the endearingly excited glow of a person who cannot believe she’s living her dream.

For a performer whose first full-length album has yet to debut, it’s interesting many of Kelly’s fans knew the words to her already-released songs, a level of dedication due in no small part to Kelly’s longtime YouTube presence. Kelly, who has been posting covers on YouTube since 14, took a moment to thank fans who had supported her on social media and performed some of her classic YouTube renditions: Justin Timberlake’s “Suit and Tie,” Michael Jackson’s “Pretty Young Thing” and her most noteworthy, Frank Ocean’s “Thinkin’ Bout You.”

In thanking her supporters, Kelly promised to stay grounded.

“I don’t ever want to forget where I came from,” she said. “We’re all in this together.”

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