It was only about a half-hour into Nao’s set at the Fillmore Silver Spring when an audience member passed out. As security provided assistance, the British soul singer sheepishly joked, “I didn’t know my voice could do that.” The sold-out crowd spent the rest of Tuesday night finding out exactly what her voice can do.
Nao, a 31-year-old East Londoner born Neo Jessica Joshua, was in town in support of “Saturn,” her exemplary 2018 album. Loosely themed around the astrological concept of a Saturn return, which marks the transition to full adulthood, “Saturn” is a perfect distillation of her influences, blasting classic soul, funk and R&B through a prism of electronic music, dance hall and Afrobeat.
But it’s her voice that’s celestial. Nao is a master of tone and control, acrobatically landing every note of her range, from a blown-glass falsetto down to her sonorous lower register. Like many of her peers, Nao can hit high notes that defy gravity, but when they go high, she goes low, free-falling into that stomach pit where the soul must live. It’s those low notes that serve as the boosters that launch her voice into orbit.
“I want to take you guys on a journey tonight,” she told the crowd. “I want to take you guys to another planet.” In that spirit, Nao was in mission control mode. She began the trip by seemingly materializing out of thin air onto a launchpad in the crowd, performing standout ballad “Another Lifetime” with the precise power of a controlled demolition.
Onstage, Nao bounded between more ballads, such as “Orbit” and “Girlfriend,” wonky numbers such as “Fool to Love” and “Gabriel,” and eclectic dance tracks such as “If You Ever” and “Drive and Disconnect.” Throughout it all, Nao exuberantly danced and smiled so wide her eyes closed.
She shared that joy with her banter in between songs. She recounted her time as a background singer who wondered, “What would happen if I actually just tried” to break out on her own, and name-dropped influences such as Marvin Gaye, Chaka Khan and D’Angelo. Memories of D’Angelo led to one of the night’s brightest moments: a mash-up of his “Brown Sugar” with her “Inhale Exhale.”
Like Nao, the crowd never stopped moving, dancing and singing, and as much as they appreciated the “Brown Sugar” flex, they were clearly there to hear her songs. During the encore, they chanted for “Bad Blood,” a woozy, slow-motion dazzler that showcases that roller coaster range. Nao gave them what they wanted. Were the chills that followed due to the full-blast air-conditioning, or just something her voice could do?