“I feel sorry for whoever’s sitting behind my dad,” laughed a young girl five minutes before Niall Horan took the Greek Theatre stage in Los Angeles.
There were a lot dads in attendance on Tuesday night, but perhaps unlike most occasions in which fathers must escort daughters to pinups' gigs, these dads likely shared the enthusiasm for Mr. Horan's songbook. It makes sense, given the earnest American st-rock songwriting that defined Horan's 2017 No. 1 debut album Flicker, which came along citing influences in The Eagles and Fleetwood Mac. Those are the daddiest Dad Rock influences. Can you imagine the delight to all dads, suddenly given the green light to serenade their daughters with “Lyin' Eyes”? He played that well, young Horan.
This was the first two nights for him and he wasn't shy in reminding the crowd how dreamy it felt -- particularly given he only lives up the road. He mentioned this twice, to deafening shrieks, course. “It’s really handy 'cause I literally live 20 minutes away,” he said in his dad jeans and his dad short-sleeved shirt and his signature coif. “If you want, we could start some kind a residency.” They would want that very much. Eleven months ago, Horan was here as a spectator, watching his former One Direction compatriot Harry Styles play for the opening leg Styles' first solo tour. It was a month before Horan's own album release. Where Styles' record was front-loaded with promotion, the singles soon stopped coming. Horan, however, has played a steadier game. Horan is just steadier all around. The downside is that he doesn't have Styles' riskier swoon factor. Horan's safer approach won him “Slow Hands,” though, and an enormous U.S. radio smash, topping the Pop Songs airplay chart back in October. Had Styles bagged “Slow Hands,” perhaps it would have been game over.
It was show time at the Greek, and the screams for Horan were not as deafening as those for Styles. But it was a loud, unified whistle stress and elation nonetheless. A blue light filled the stage and Celtic strings rang through the naked humid air as the Irishman sauntered on, a gorgeous red guitar strapped around his cheery frame. Horan has ten been considered the “musical one” his former boy band. He is always behind an instrument, usually a guitar. On Tuesday night, he switched to piano at one point for the non-album track “So Long” to show some variation. For the opener, though, he was all electric, fingering the strings and screwing his face as he belted out single “On the Loose.” That's a song that wears its Mac influence on its sleeve, yet falls more on the side The Corrs (which is truly no bad thing).
When Horan auditioned on The X Factor eight years ago, Simon Cowell ridiculed fellow judge Louis Walsh for saying “people will like him because he's likable.” Walsh was right: Horan is so likable. Maybe too likable. As likable as an apartment with perfect air conditioning. You can't not like him. Despite his likability, he is not a natural solo star. He’s a player. Onstage, he shone most when pandering to the great chemistry he had with his merry band English and Irish men, including a violinist and a pianist. You can see that he might be the member One Direction most ready to get the band back together. His impetus for performing seems tied to the idea sharing, not owning. Of course, the crowd weren't thinking about that. They knew all the verses and all the choruses and all the guitar solos too, relentlessly jumping up and down in the floor section and heeding to Horan's clap-along instructions.
The songs on Flicker fit him like a glove. They're natural and unforced, rendering him the one solo star post-One Direction who makes it look like it's no biggie. “Well good evening, Los Angeles, California -- holy shit!” he said by way introduction. “You sold this one out for me. You’re absolute legends! Lovely stuff! All right.” Horan shares Styles’ provincial authenticity, seeming remarkably unaffected, considering the roller-coaster ride that must have come with being in one history’s biggest pop machines. His sense self remains intact. It may sound schmaltzy at times on the likes “The Tide” (recalling peers such as James Bay or Shawn Mendes) and “This Town,” but it also sounds like Irish folk rock and childhood nostalgia. It sounds like the music Horan genuinely loves and has always loved.
His oeuvre isn’t very diverse, but it’s consistent and comforting. Vocally, he’s improved his transatlantic croon to a point where he can carry a full band. When he dedicated the first two covers to his “favorite singer all time” Bruce Springsteen and strummed out “Dancing in the Dark” onstage alone, it was a sweet moment -- but it was not an interpretation a classic, rather an appreciation. The second cover was Tom Petty’s “Won’t Back Down.” Horan plays music because it makes him feel happy. Watching him enjoy it is like stumbling upon an open-mic performance and feeling glad for the singer.
Aware the need to pull out some showbiz stops too, the evening called upon Texan support act Maren Morris to duet on country-tinged pop song “Seeing Blind.” They had an impromptu giggle onstage together -- evidence that Horan's show isn't compulsively over-rehearsed. Similar to Styles, Horan also brought out One Direction numbers his own choosing: an acoustic version “Fools Gold” and a souped-up electric spin on “Drag Me Down.”
For Horan, headlining here was a “bucket list” moment. “Playing under the stars in the hills Los Angeles,” he said, romantically. “Thanks for making this little Irish fella’s dreams come true.” His is a casual intimacy. When talking up his favorite album track -- the title song -- he said he wrote it fast. “They don’t usually come that quick, not gonna lie,” he laughed. Asking the crowd to stick their phones in their pockets, he appealed for them to “go to that place in your head where this song takes you, and if you need to cry, do it now.” A fan screamed: “YES! I LOVE CRYING!”
Unlike Styles, Horan doesn’t have any preciously topical slogans (i.e., “treat people with kindness”), just this endless pit inherent niceness. It feels less protected, somehow freer. The crowd needn't be told to be whoever they want to be; they just are, singing their hearts out when Horan cued them. It's during “Drag Me Down” that you realize he’s the One Directioner who’s tied his solo career seamlessly to the group's back catalog. Maybe he was always the truest them all. Earlier in the show, he talked up his Californian influences. The first concert he went to was The Eagles at the age 4. He doesn't know for sure, but he said he figured those guys have played here too. (They haven't, but Don Henley and other solo Eagles have.) “That’s why I moved here,” he said, before leaving the stage for that 20-minute journey back to his house.
Niall Horan's set list for night one at LA's Greek Theatre:
On the Loose
You and Me
Dancing in the Dark (Bruce Springsteen cover)
Seeing Blind (with Maren Morris)
Fool’s Gold (One Direction)
Too Much to Ask
Since We’re Alone
Won't Back Down (Tom Petty cover)
On My Own
Drag Me Down (One Direction)