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Olivia Rodrigo’s Sour Tour Is a Punky Heartbreak Revue

5 min read

PORTLAND, Ore. — As a pop star, Olivia Rodrigo’s heritage includes precise dissectors and unruly shredders, the anguished and the angsty. Her debut album, “Sour” — one of last year’s finest releases, and one of the most promising pop arrival notices of the past few years — calmly and assuredly makes deeply interior lyrics sound like the pretext for a tussle.

Onstage Tuesday night at the Theater of the Clouds at the Moda Center here, during the first performance of her Sour Tour, she went about reconciling these competing impulses from the outset. Heavy guitar smears announced her arrival, and kicked off the eye-rolling, heavy-exhaling teen-misery anthem “Brutal,” followed by the seething “Jealousy, Jealousy.”

Then Rodrigo sat at the piano she’d been ignoring and leaned into “Drivers License,” the song that had made all this possible. A cry of utter loneliness, it was released in early January 2021, and became a pandemic megasmash and last year’s most consequential pop song, catapulting Rodrigo from minor Disney-show fame to full-on pop-culture conflagration.

She took her time with it here, showing off the piercing thickness in her voice, even as seemingly each of the few thousand people in attendance was trying to outsing her. After she finished, she exhaled and smiled and noted, “That song won a Grammy, like, two days ago.”

Rodrigo won three in total, actually, including best new artist, capping off a rollicking 15-month stretch. But despite all of the acclaim she’d received, owing to the pandemic, she had not yet performed to a room of thousands of adoring fans who’d come to see only her.

This boisterous, cathartic coming-out-on-the-road party was a manageable-sized affair. Every song on “Sour” and a couple of covers, all in just under an hour. Minimal staging, just gym bleachers on either side of the stage and a disco ball looming high overhead. And even though her hits probably could have filled arenas, Rodrigo is starting with more moderate-sized audiences.

Several times, she showed just how colossal her intimate songs could be, like her solo acoustic guitar turn on a medley of “Enough for You” and “1 Step Forward, 3 Steps Back,” and on the reluctant “Favorite Crime.” She was just as convincing when she let loose, like on the rollicking upturned middle finger “Good 4 U.” The vivid bloodletting “Traitor” was alternately coffeehouse quiet and arena bombastic, and equally persuasive in both modes.

Rodrigo was backed by a roaring all-female band, which gave her songs a palpable viscosity: “Happier” was rendered as the theme of a tragic prom, and “Hope Ur OK,” a melancholy thematic outlier on the album, was throbbingly moody, immediately triggering thousands to thrust lit-up cellphones into the air.

With the benefit of not even a full year of hindsight, “Sour” feels like even more of a supernova. To some degree, its aftershocks are already being felt — there’s an emergent class of young female singer-songwriters, many with a dose of TikTok virality, in the Rodrigo mold, including Lauren Spencer-Smith, gayle and Gracie Abrams, who is the opening act for this tour. (Rodrigo said the influence ran in the other direction as well, noting that the soundtrack to the tearful drive she wrote about so vividly in “Drivers License” was Abrams’s “I Miss You, I’m Sorry.”)

Rodrigo’s juggle of puckish, punkish and beatific was reflected in the ’90s-heavy preshow soundtrack: Michelle Branch’s “Everywhere,” Fiona Apple’s “Criminal,” the Breeders’ “Cannonball,” the Cardigans’ “Lovefool” (though the biggest crowd reactions, by far, were for the repeated plays of One Direction’s “Olivia,” which was released when Rodrigo was 12). And it was there in her outfit choices, too: first, plaid bondage pants paired with a black mesh top, and later, a glittery dress paired with bulky combat boots. (“Olivia Rodrigo: Driving Home 2 U,” the concert film released last month, uses footage of the first time Rodrigo records a demo of “Drivers License” — she’s wearing safety pin earrings.)

Her open claim on a range of styles has already attracted some degree of tension, if not quite resentment. Courtney Love dragged Rodrigo for purported similarities between the album artwork for “Sour” and Hole’s “Live Through This.” And two songs on “Sour” now include additional writing credits: Taylor Swift, Jack Antonoff and Annie Clark (a.k.a. St. Vincent) on “Deja Vu,” and Paramore’s Hayley Williams and Josh Farro on “Good 4 U.” Imagine paying thoughtful homage only to find that those you’ve long admired from a distance are hovering like vultures hellbent on protecting their shrinking spit of land.

At this show, she performed two knowing covers: “Complicated” by Avril Lavigne, who from the beginning of her career coated her pinpoint pop instincts in punk aesthetics, and Veruca Salt’s “Seether,” a pillar of grunge-adjacent alt-rock that was the one moment Rodrigo appeared out of her depth, her irate vocals not able to cut through the band’s abandon.

Now that the live-music business is getting back on its feet, Rodrigo can finally avail herself of some of the fun parts of stardom. First, the unpredictable crackle of live performance: Not every call-and-response moment went flawlessly, but Rodrigo seemed to be amused by the missed signals. There’s the adoration from fans for whom she is now a proxy best friend: “Don’t text him,” Rodrigo cautioned one young woman holding up a sign pleading for romantic advice. And there’s the joy of finally, truly cracking through the restrictive rictus of child fame: In front of me, a mother futilely attempted to cover her daughter’s ears each time Rodrigo landed at the cursing part of “Drivers License” and every young woman in the room shouted along.

For most of the night, Rodrigo was either sitting or running, but by the end of the show, she looked more at ease. At the first chorus of “Deja Vu,” she lay atop the piano and sang to the sky. And just as “Good 4 U,” the night’s final song, was about to end, she ran over to the drums and began smashing away on a cymbal, a taste of all the freedoms to come.

Olivia Rodrigo’s Sour Tour runs through May 27;