The almost sold-out crowd of almost 20,000 people filed into the Xfinity Center near Boston, as Grace VanderWaal bounded onto the stage as the opening act for the 2018 Imagine Dragons’ Evolve Summer Tour. Grace and her band moved quickly through an almost-perfect set of 11 songs over the next 40 minutes.

The sun had almost set as Grace began performing, and low beams of light shined under the roof, towards the stage and onto Grace and her band for almost half the set, causing her to joke between songs about getting a tan if she stayed on too long. The almost-bare stage (usual to an opening act) was decorated with a floral boa covering Grace’s mic stand, rolling down onto the stage before winding around and up onto the drum platform. Grace wore matching floral accents in her hair, and a flowing dark gown picked out new for this tour.

Opening the setlist was “Moonlight”, which for the Evolve tour is sporting a newly-modified intro chorus. Grace then deftly handled an awkward beginning to her single “City Song”, with a professionalism beyond her years. “Burned” is a standout song on her setlist this time around, combining the solid drumming of Ben Masters, lone holdover from Grace’s last tour, with the wailing guitar of new-addition Melissa (MGX) Dougherty. Melissa and Grace have made several recent duo appearances over the last couple of months, at MTV Rooftop and NPR’s Tiny Desk concert series, and seem to share an almost-instant chemistry.

Almost all of the songs from her earlier recording, the 2016 EP “Perfectly Imperfect”, were gone from her set, except for a rich, pounding version of “Gossip Girl”, and her signature song, “I Don’t Know My Name”, which she stated she would never get tired of, as it is always making her new memories.

Almost all of the banter that had accompanied her recent “Just The Beginning” tour was gone as well, except for a comical introduction to her new cover of “Best Friend” by Rex Orange County, which had Grace trying to come to terms with the pronouns used to describe a one-man band.

Rounding out her set was her latest single, “Clearly”, an almost-completely rewritten rendition of Johnny Nash’s 1972 classic “I Can See Clearly Now”. The set was comprised of almost all high-energy, dance-beat selections from Grace’s catalog. Left off her list this time around were both “Better Life” and “Darkness Keeps Chasing Me”, songs Grace has highlighted in recent performances.

Grace’s vocals were already in mid-tour form, and the song choices seem to have been tailored to showing off the power and clarity that comes with moving from a child novice to a seasoned adult performer. Almost gone were the dropouts and vocal breaks that were ever-present in her earliest performances. Grace is now showing her chops as a veteran of the road, and almost all the way to the top of the game.

Setlist:
Moonlight
City Song
Burned
Gossip Girl
So Much More Than This
Talk Good
Florets
Best Friend
Escape My Mind
I Don’t Know My Name
Clearly


Additional observations added in the discussion thread in response to reader comments:

For those who have posted concerns regarding a sub-par sound and stage setup and to address how well Grace did as an opener for the biggest band in the world…

The opening act on a tour like this one always has inferior equipment and stage space to the headliner. They don’t, as many people might assume, use the same lighting, sound or other equipment, and don’t have the benefit of large groups of roadies to help with camera work and spotlighting. They also play before the sun goes down at open-air venues and don’t get the benefit of cool audience participation such as fans holding up phone flashlights and swaying to the music. This should be kept in mind when evaluating Grace’s summer appearances, as they hold true for lots of opening acts.

To give you some background, I’m intimately familiar with last night’s venue, back when it was known as Great Woods. I’ve seen sound-checks and pre-show warm-ups from backstage and watched and spent time on tour buses, watching load-ins and load-outs, and heard countless stories of time on the road from those playing the venue. For the sake of career progression comparisons, allow me to discuss Imagine Dragons (henceforth referred to as ID) performance last night.

ID is a slick and professional act with a level of comfort on stage that only comes from years of practice and dedication. They’re relaxed enough to have members wear cat-ears or day-glow pink plastic jackets on stage, and Dan Reynolds embodies showmanship, moving effortlessly from piano to drums to guitar to sequencer as he stalks the stage, in full control.

The band feels comfortable enough in their command of the audience and their material to move up to a small stage near the lighting/sound boards to perform a 3-song acoustic interlude, ending with Reynolds wandering the audience to sing lines of the song directly into fans’ eyes as he made his way back to the main stage.

The lighting, sound, back-screen, and incidental music and video between songs were the packaged and presented work of a big, experienced and professional team in their stride, and the audience of roughly 20 thousand, a mix of couples, families, and people truly of all ages got their money’s worth.

Why have I gone on and on about ID? Because they’re the goal that you aim for, the big dog on the block. Sure, Korean boy band BTS has the tween girl market buzzing these days, and Maroon 5 gets out and about, but ID is really the band on top of the heap.

For Grace to just be in the room with them, metaphorically as well as actually, is a big deal, as we all are aware. But Grace isn’t REALLY in the room, as all opening acts see soon enough. When Grace hit the stage the last two nights, the place was less than half full, and people are talking or making their way from the can, or hanging on the beer line, or at the merch tent checking out swag, and don’t care if the opener knows it.

Yes, the pit was full, and a smattering of Grace fans sat attentively and cheered at any full stop. The opener knows that at best they are there to serve a small portion of true fans, and only a fraction of the total attendance, and have to be up to the task mentally in order to brave it out.

The meat of my point is that Grace’s performance looked small, and not particularly professional at this stage in her career, but to be fair, ALL opening acts look small, as they’re bunched up at the front of the stage with minimal decoration.

My concern is that the second show should have gone smoother from a technical standing than the first, and it did, but not by much. Backing tracks start abruptly, leaving the band to catch the rhythm a second late, leading to confusion on Grace’s part as she tries to do introductions or quick thank-yous, as happened last night for City Song.

Performing in such stark daylight conditions adds another layer of distraction, as you can see the whole audience, such of it as there is, and sunlight in your eyes as well.

Enough doom and gloom. I wasn’t kidding in the review, her voice really is top of her game. While she pulls in the reigns on a couple of her signature moments; leaving out the rasp in Florets as well as tempering both of the big notes in Moonlight and Clearly, she used just about all the gravel in Escape my Mind and her power throughout the set, especially the long end-note in Burned. These are indications that the she HAS what it takes to hold a room that size, or will when the time comes.

Because she lacks what ID already has, and has earned over the last decade: the comfortable, polished ease that radiates out to a crowd, a full crowd, and makes them believe you should be ending the show instead of opening it.

This article was first posted on VanderVault’s YouTube channel: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-Yfl9ID8F0g&lc=UgwEwOvYkVSm8G_BV0x4AaABAg