On February 11, 1964, The Beatles played their second U.S. show (first appearing on the Ed Sullivan show two nights prior) here in Washington, at the now-empty Washington Coliseum near Union Station. Over 8,000 fans filled the stadium to capacity as 362 D.C. police officers tried to keep them at bay as they screamed, shouted and fainted in the aisles. The British Invasion had reached American shores, and this performance, plagued by faulty equipment and terrifying fans was the tipping point of Beatlemania. Last night, Ellie Goulding kicked off her first U.S. Tour at the Rock and Roll Hotel, not too far from the site of that fateful 1964 show.
At 24, Goulding has already secured substantial fame in England. Her very first studio album, 2010’s Lights, debuted at number one on the U.K. chart, so fervent was her fanbase. As she took the stage, it became clear that no one, not even Goulding, could have anticipated the response from American fans on the first night of her tour.
After that fateful Beatles performance, the Fab Four headed from Union Station to the British Embassy at 3100 Massachusetts Avenue. There they gave away raffle prizes for charity. Having escaped the rabid crowds of the Coliseum, it must have been somewhat of a relief to be amongst their countrymen at a civilized affair. That was, until a deranged guest approached Ringo Starr — and snipped a lock of hair from behind his left ear.
Goulding’s U.S. Tour was strategically timed for a soft start at SXSW — her Ed Sullivan Show. And perhaps these first few tour dates will be grandfathered into that spectrum: smaller, intimate venues set to explode with the overwhelming enthusiasm of her fans. But after last night’s performance, it appears unlikely such venues will have the resources to control the spread of Ellie fever.
Lights is not new. It was released in Britain a year ago. But in that year, fans have managed to learn the lyrics to every song, including songs Ellie announced she thought were unfamiliar to the assembled crowd. After an energetic opening set by New York-based DJ-duo The Knocks, Goulding took to the stage, an energetic fireball of fairy dust, launching into “Under the Sheets.” The intensity of the underage crowd singing along drowned out her lovely voice at times. Hers is a delicate one; raspy, soulful, but airy.
An emphatic version of “Guns and Horses” incorporated a galloping drum kit she used backed by an actual drummer and the rest of her band, alternately playing guitar, keyboards and samples. Goulding follows in the footsteps of a long line of modern British dance anthem icons. She incorporates the catchy, kitschy hooks of Allison Goldfrapp and the dance club giddyness of Sophie Ellis-Bextor with aplomb. Her beautiful, sparse rendition of Elton John’s “Your Song” left the crowd breathless — she acknowledges the greats. A prolific songwriter, her compositions range from songs that are easily remixed into dubstep wonders and lilting, emotional acoustic ballads. “Guns and Horses,” she’s said, is about meetings someone online and falling for them through a computer screen, but they don’t reciprocate. Could there be a more timely love song for Generations Y and Z?
It’s a common theme, it seems, for Goulding. Prefacing nearly each song with a story, she introduced “The Writer” with, “this song is about liking a boy, who doesn’t like you back, which is really annoying,” shaking her head. “In fact, I think he knows this song is about him, and he still doesn’t care.”
You can have it all, but not everything. Goulding played a beautiful accoustic version of “Wish I Stayed,” saying, “this is the first song I ever wrote, I don’t expect you all to know it.” Again, her voice was overcome by the crowd’s monotone sing-a-long. She started, stopped, and started again, though it was unclear if this was due to an error, or annoyance. “You f*cked it up!” shouted one fan at the front, and Goulding stopped again as more fans gasped. She is an enigmatic performer with a powerful voice, but the crowd had become unruly, alternately screaming corrections and song requests, or just screaming for the sake of hearing their own voices call out to her. The shouting grew from flattering to obnoxious very quickly. Perhaps in a stadium setting, these reactions would have been drowned out by the capacity of space and volume, but in the intimate setting at hand, they were suffocating.
The chorus of “The Writer” asks, “Why don’t you be the artist, and make me out of clay? Why don’t you be the writer, and decide the words I say?” Goulding is at the start of a promising career. As her fans clamor for the dance hits, the synth-pop, the electro-ballads of love and loss, desperate for her to acknowledge them waving her album in the air, we can only hope Goulding will stand her ground in the face of demands from her fan base, and have the room to grow.