Twenty-three months ago, Billie Eilish was hot off sweeping all the major Grammys, a teenage phenom three dates into her first-ever arena tour on her way to Philadelphia to headline the Wells Fargo Center.
That March 2020 show on the goth-pop singer’s Where Do We Go? tour never happened, due to the coronavirus live music shutdown. So it wasn’t until Sunday night that the now 20-year-old Eilish finally made it to South Philly, where an ecstatic sold-out audience awaited her.
This time, Eilish is on the road on her Happier Than Ever tour, a trek named for the 2021 release she wrote and recorded during the pandemic with her brother and producer, Finneas O’Connell.
Happier Than Ever hasn’t been quite as widely celebrated as Eilish’s grimier, star-making 2019 debut, When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go?, but it’s an equally impressive testimony to Eilish as a cliche-avoiding songwriter with a flair for drama and command of her craft.
On Sunday, the night began with an engaging half-hour of indie guitar pop by Dora Jar, the Los Angeles-based singer who replaced Willow, the newly punk-rock daughter of Will and Jada Pinkett Smith, who was originally scheduled to open the show.
Smith dropped out of the tour hours before the first date in New Orleans earlier this month, announcing on Twitter that “due to production limitations, I am unable to put on the show that you all deserve.”
Eilish hit the stage with a bang, leaping in the air as the room switched from dark to light. She kicked off a 26-song, one-hour-and-40-minute performance with the opening rumble of Where Do We Go’s metaphysical query “Bury A Friend.”
She was accompanied by just two musicians, each positioned atop a cube on either side of the uncluttered stage. Her brother Finneas, a recording artist in his own right switched between keyboards, bass, and guitar, and Andrew Marshall played drums.
The minimalist approach — in both musical and visual presentation, with stark light and shadow and never-overdone flashes of green and red lasers — put the emphasis on Eilish’s confiding, contemplative, and self-confident songs.
They can stand the scrutiny. With two-tone hair and dark, arty electropop and trap music production, Eilish came to prominence as a subversive anti-pop star, the weird teenager in baggy clothes whose appeal is that much more broad because she doesn’t project an artificial image of airbrushed perfection.
But it’s her way with an insinuating hook and propulsive groove that ultimately forge the connection with her audience, which was extremely vocal and about 80% female. Toward the end of the evening, she thanked not only all her fans, but also “the parents and cousins” who gave up watching the Super Bowl to chaperone their loved ones.
Dressed for an athletic performance in spandex tights and sneakers, her dark hair in pigtails, Eilish eschewed the glam platinum blond look from the Happier Than Ever album cover.
The singer, who first played Philadelphia upstairs at the World Cafe Live in 2017, is already a seasoned show woman. She spent much of the concert traversing a catwalk that extended onto the floor of the arena, regularly checking to make sure the crowd wasn’t getting too squeezed.
“Philly has always been one of my favorite places to perform,” she said, urging everyone “to be grateful to be alive and be here. I don’t want anyone to feel that they’re unsafe.”
Eilish caught fire with the one-two punch of the self-assertive “Therefore I Am” and hypnotic “My Strange Addiction,” each powered by room-quaking bass you could feel bubbling up through the soles of your feet, a physical impact made all the more pronounced by the bodies bouncing in unison throughout the room.
But while those hard-slamming segments were galvanizing, Eilish was equally impressive in quieter moments. Happier Than Ever songs like “Billie’s Bossa Nova” and “Halley’s Comet” demonstrated a deft touch with pre-rock jazz-tinged balladry and an expressive voice that stands on its own.
She brought her brother down for a seated acoustic interlude, that began with Happier’s nakedly vulnerable “Your Power,” which Eilish said was her proudest achievement as a songwriter. “I don’t feel like I’ve topped it,” she said.
The show was well-paced, save for when Eilish climbed into a cherry picker lifted high on a crane toward the back of the house for two songs. The goal of getting close to her people was accomplished, but she spent so much time throwing Valentine’s Day candy to fans that momentum was lost.
Not that anyone minded. And when Eilish got back on the ground, the show again took off, with “Bored” and “Getting Older” accompanied by adorable home movie videos of Billie and Finneas as toddlers, and “All The Good Girls Go To Hell,” presented with big screen imagery intending to raise climate change awareness.
(Eilish’s mother, Maggie Baird, spoke to the crowd via video before the show started, urging fans to support the eco organization Support + Feed and to eat one plant-based meal per day.)
Eilish’s breakout hit “Bad Guy” brought confetti down from the rafters, and the show came to a close with the Happier Than Ever title track. The classic “get out of my life, loser” breakup song was an exultant expression of autonomy, with the house lights up and seemingly every soul singing along while Finneas enjoyed a guitar-hero solo. A fabulous finale to a terrific show.