“Oh my God, it’s cute in here!”
So began Billie Eilish’s biggest ever month in Europe with a, for her at least, intimate show. Just the singer, her brother Finneas and 2000 fans in a concert hall on the banks of the Rhine in the middle of Germany.
It’s the month she finally brings her 65-date Happier Than Ever world tour to the UK, four months after it kicked off at New Orleans’ Smoothie King Centre and getting on for a year since the release of the second album of the same name. The month she rocks up to Belfast this Jubilee weekend, then parks herself for six nights at The O2, a residency that also encompasses her Overheated climate event takeover at the London venue. And it’s the month she headlines Glastonbury – at 20, the youngest artist ever to do so.
But before all that, tonight Billie goes back to basics in Bonn. She’s kicking off her European tour with a special, 12-song acoustic set at the Telekom Forum. An exclusive gig put on as part of her partnership with Telekom Electronic Beats, it’s a staging and setting that suits – and in fact elevates – the low-wattage, muted songs on Happier Than Ever.
“It’s been so long since I’ve seen you!” she screamed at the outset of the 54-minute set. “I’m just very grateful to be in front of you and be, like, intimate with you again, and be so close to you. So… let’s keep it going!”
We second that emotion.
As globe-girdling, sell-out arena runs go, the Happier Than Ever tour is no lights, lasers, dancers, b‑stages and confetti-cannon extravaganza – on a regular show, it’s only Billie, multi-instrumentalist Finneas and drummer Andrew Marshall. But tonight, it’s even more stripped back and, effectively, unplugged.
Billie spends a lot of the time sat on a stool (as does Finneas), barely dances (not even during Bad Guy), and is most animated on the occasional moments she wades into the audience for a laying on of hands for the ecstatically screaming crowd – and to call in security when an overheated attendee faints during idontwannabeyouanymore.
The result is all the more precious: more “audience with Billie” than “20,000 fans go bananas to some massive pop bangers”.
Eilish has a strong, new, mean ‘n’ moody look: after her bleach-blonde 2021, for 2022 her hair is pitch-black with a boxy, square-cut fringe. Paired with a black sweatshirt and camo cargo pants the overall effect is of a no-messing, all-focused, we-mean-business artist foregrounding her songs over everything else. That said: she’s also all smiles and jokes – and relief. “I haven’t gotten to do this kind of thing in so long,” she says, beaming. “I’m so happy to see you all and see all of your faces.”
In such a small venue, the stage presence, lyrical acuity and fan worship of Eilish are all electrifying. The songs are absorbed in either breathless silence, or sung along to with messianic fervour. Then the squealing, screaming, shrieking resumes.
Best examples: Bad Guy is performed to a forest of lofted phones and a mass, intensely shouted “DUH!”, much to the singer’s amusement. And she’s joined on the closing Happier Than Ever by an emphatic, almost-deranged-sounding mass singalong. Altogether now: “You ruined everything good /Always said you were misunderstood /Made all my moments your own /Just fucking leave me alone!”
“You guys – if you notice, it looks like my fly is unzipped. But it’s not. Just so you know. I just want you all to know. It’s zipped. I can’t do anything about it, sorry! I just thought you should know, ha ha!”
Billie… OK we’ve run out of puns now
But! Her rendition of Ocean Eyes sounds as pure and golden as it did when she first sang it, aged 13. Teeing up When the Party’s Over, she tells the audience that “I literally haven’t been able to hit the high note in this song for, like, four years… I’m not joking at all… watch…” And she nails it.
That effortless vocal range is part of the pure pop star charisma of Eilish. She doesn’t have to prance or preen to prove her rock’n’roll credentials. Her cool, calm, collected ability to command any stage – big, bigger or, like tonight, cosy – is part of what makes her a superstar. It was there when she rocked Glastonbury in 2019, after the wholly unfazed 17-year-old was promoted to The Other Stage from a John Peel tent (capacity: 7000) that could no longer contain her skyrocketing fame.
Later this month, she’s front and centre in a new BBC documentary, Glastonbury: 50 Years and Counting. Interviewed in the rolling fields of Worthy Farm, she looks to the distance and says, mildly: “Is that Glastonbury, the empty shit over there? Is this what all the fuss is about?”
The youngest ever headliner of the world’s greatest festival? As they say in Bonn: kein problem.