We were only a couple of songs into the setlist when L.A.’s Katelyn Tarver summed up the theme of the night. “If you’re here, you know what you’re getting into tonight. There’s some sad songs,” she cautioned. However, she quickly (and correctly) followed with a more upbeat prediction, “But we’re going to have fun.”
Indeed, anyone familiar with her recent album, Subject to Change, was already anticipating a night of honest modern pop introspection covering a lot of weighty ground. Grief, loneliness, heartbreak, and the search for self-understanding were sure to be on the bill. Yet we recognized that there was also joy in the evening. It was to be a celebration not only of the release of the aforementioned record, but the concert was also part of Tarver’s return to live music after the unavoidable hiatus of the last few years. It was a chance for Tarver and her fans to be sad together while enjoying her new music.
Some may recognize Tarver as an actor rather than a singer. After all, she has spent a good amount of time on the TV screen with roles on Big Time Rush, The Secret Life of an American Teenager, and HBO’s Ballers. However, she’s also a vet of the pop music scene with her early LPs Wonderful Crazy and Brand New Day, a stack of EPs, several viral singles, and a winning appearance on NBC’s Songland already under her belt. With Subject to Change, Tarver shows a distinct evolution of maturity in her writing and song selection. The deep, personal tracks from the record fit perfectly within the concert’s intimate setting at Nashville’s High Watt.
The show started with the pop glow of the album’s lead track, “Back To You.” A fitting start to both the concert and the record, it showcased Tarver’s ability to balance vulnerable introspection with an air of strengthened resolve. That same vulnerability shined through in her shimmering vocals on her later performance of, “All Our Friends Are Splitting Up,” and the folk-inflected, “When I Leave Home.” The latter, a song about the bittersweet feelings whenever she leaves her family’s home in Georgia to return to the hustle of L.A., was clearly even more emotional that night for Tarver as her father had traveled to Nashville to watch the show.
The night was also a special moment for Tarver as it was a homecoming for many of the songs from Subject to Change. As she shared, she worked with Nashville songwriters when writing many of the tracks. That included one of the evening’s fan favorites, “Shit Happens.” A loud roar of support filled the room as the first piano notes of the song played. It’s easy to see how so many people feel linked to the song, whether they’re listening to it after two years of navigating a world of constant uncertainty or embracing the track’s broader message that most things in life are simply out of our control.
While the concert was a chance for Tarver to share her new tracks, she did work in some of her most popular songs from the past into her setlist. That included her anthemic hit, “You Don’t Know,” and the brooding, “Somebody Else.” The dramatic build of, “You Don’t Know,” allowed Tarver to showcase a more powerful side of her voice while the latter got its emotional punch thanks to her melancholic inflection she poured into the vocals. The appreciative crowd sang along to the familiar works.
The evening may have come with a sadness warning, but that didn’t mean that it was an evening without some up-tempo and bigger tracks. The crowd swayed along to the head-nodding beat on, “Hurt Like That.” Another fan favorite, a shout from the audience accurately declared it a ‘certified bop.’ Later, show closer, “Out of Excuses,” relied on its slow build rather than a catchy beat for its intensity. However, the song’s message of post-relationship empowerment still brought the evening to a memorable close.
The definition of pop music is ultimately quite simple: it’s whatever is popular. Therefore, it’s arguable that right now sad pop isn’t just a sub-genre but is in fact pop music itself. Standing out can be challenging as more artists embrace their melancholic or depressive demons. However, the show at Nashville’s High Watt proved that Katelyn Tarver has been working with introspective themes all along and has honed the craft well for this latest release. She also allows growth, empowerment, and resolve to exist on the fringes of her angst. It’s thanks to that emotional dichotomy that, as promised, she gave us an evening full of sad songs which was still a whole lot of fun.
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