Intimate and epic, theatrical and simple, polished and unvarnished, chilling horror on screen mixed with warm care on stage, with a setlist ricocheting off genres and constantly keeping one’s ears at attention, Halsey’s long-awaited return to Summerfest’s biggest stage on Saturday night was impossible to put nicely in a box or easily classify. So basically, it was a perfect Halsey performance, delivering precisely what’s made the talented “Bad At Love” singer revered: a night that couldn’t be simply or plainly defined except as 100 percent pure authentic Halsey.
“What matters more in a story,” asked the stage’s giant tilted screen at the start of the show, “if it’s good or if it’s true?” Making her first return to Milwaukee since 2018, Halsey’s set answered that question with a resounding “Why not both?” for the next two hours, starting with “The Tradition,” the moody angsty opener from 2021’s album, “If I Can’t Have Love, I Want Power.” Until some fire blasts at the very end, the song makes for a surprisingly low-key opener, but its ominous drive – matched by the blood-red lyrics splashed on the screens – quickly captured the attention of the two-thirds full Amp audience, particularly since the performer wasn’t actually on the stage. It took a little work (even with a spotlight’s help), but eventually the crowd found Halsey on a scaffolding above the stage, singing the opening lament.
Halsey may have left the scaffolding and come down to earth after that – but the show never did, starting the first of its four “chapters”: The Capture, which could’ve also been re-titled “The Crowd Pleasers.” Indeed, after its subdued open, the pop star launched into some of their biggest hits, showing off their genre-defiant range – from the mood pop of “Castle” to the twangy tell-off “You Should Be Sad,” with the punky “Easier Than Lying” in between. The early chapters (The Capture, followed by Release) not only showed off the depth of Halsey’s musical variety but also of their catalogue of hits, skipping from the emo energy of “1121” to the boppy electro-pop of “Graveyard” to the lush size of “Colors” and the slinky, soulful taunt of “Hurricane.”
Just before that hit, during one of her regular personable chats with the crowd, Halsey felt “morally compelled” to warn any parents with young kids at the Amp that “adult swim” was going to start after “Hurricane” – and indeed, the visuals immediately after featured a bluntly bloodied nose and a steamy sexy meet-up (albeit in a not particularly steamy, not particularly sexy bathroom). The visuals the entire set brought a horror edge and eeriness to the night: silencing plain masks with screaming eyes behind them, Halsey drenched in blood, “Lighthouse” accompanied by the star on screen made up like a crew member from Davy Jones’ ship in the “Pirates” movies. Even before her warning, the visuals had a horror vibe that was eye-grabbing – quite literally in the case of “Easier Than Lying,” featuring close-ups of an eye seemingly in the metal “Clockwork Orange” headgear.
Even with all of that, though, the visuals were more just table-dressing for what was really a fairly simple show on Saturday night – some laser lights here, some sparks and fire there, but no dancers or big fancy complicated set or helicopters like the night before. The night felt theatrical in its mood and emotional scope – but there was no doubt the spotlight was truly and solely Halsey’s for the night. And she commanded it. Last time the singer was at the Big Gig, Logic co-headlined the show. This time, no other stars were necessary: Halsey beamed bright enough all by the performer’s self.
During the songs themselves, Halsey brought the energy and emotion. Again, it was truly only Halsey in the spotlight for the two-hour set – no dancers or props, just the screen – but the show never felt lacking thanks to the performer constantly making full use of the stage, stomping and bouncing back and forth from each side and, later on, stepping back to play guitar along with the band on “Killing Boys” and “3am.” Add in their voice – sometimes belting, sometimes haunting, sometimes sultry, always soulful – and it was a true star performance, just one source of mighty gravitational pull. The only prop needed during the whole night was a blank canvas during “Be Kind” where Halsey proceeded to spend the song creating a (quite good!) painting while still singing. Now that’s multi-tasking.
Where Halsey arguably shines brightest live, though, is while chatting with the audience. The singer’s interactions didn’t feel like recycled cliches or the standard banter, but instead genuine conversation with the crowd and the night, whether talking about watching old performances and reflecting on how she’s changed over just a few years, joking with the crowd that no she’s not going to bring out her baby since it’s 11:30 at night (“I think I’m a cool mom … but not THAT cool”), coming up with fake factoids to embarrass her band during intros or merely playfully teasing the encore section of the set.
Sometimes the banter got Halsey in trouble. Near the middle of the show, for instance, they teased a song that they apparently wrote about Milwaukee … but they seemingly couldn’t remember how it went, and the crowd was no help, so it never made an appearance. But as Halsey said during the show, “Perfection when it comes to art is f*cking boring.” And indeed, their light-on-their-feet, sincere on-stage personality made the show’s few snafus – a pants malfunction before “Be Kind” that took her off stage, an odd stop and restart during the closing number “I Am Not A Woman, I’m A God” – not only forgivable but feel like something even special, like Milwaukee was getting a unique show with its own particular quirks and memories.
After an ever-so-slightly draggy middle of the set that the singer's pipes and personality effortlessly powered through, Halsey wrapped up this night of high notes with yet more high notes.
The singer brought her main set to a close with the howling sing-along chorus favorite “Bad at Love” along with the combo of “Whispers” and “Gasoline” – both with a propulsive electronic ominousness right out of Nine Inch Nails, which makes sense since the former comes off “If I Can’t Have Love, I Want Power,” produced by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross. Then, after a brief break, she came back out for her final chapter: Revenge, leading with the thrashing rager “Nightmare,” given even more fuel by all-too-timely images of pro-choice protesters, abortion facts, a final call to action and a rousing chant of “My body, my choice.” The segment earned some headlines earlier this week when walkouts happened at a previous tour stop. Milwaukee stayed put and listened.
After that potent moment, Halsey lightened things up with a cover for “’80s babies” … or more realistically anyone who’s binged “Stranger Things” this summer: Kate Bush’s now-inescapable “Running Up That Hill (A Deal with God).” No stranger to songs about identity and tortured relationships, the cover fit right in with the set rather than feeling like hopping on a bandwagon – plus maybe it’s a clue we’re just one step closer to a Halsey biopic starring Millie Bobby Brown. The singer then called it a night with the pop ballad “Without Me” and one more dose of addictive NIN-fueled industrial vibes with “I Am Not a Woman, I’m a God."
And after the past two hours of one-of-a-kind entertainment, musical unpredictability and genuine on-stage personality, the audience couldn’t help but agree with that last song’s assessment.
"Easier Than Lying"
"You Should Be Sad"
"Girl Is a Gun"
"Bad at Love"
"Running Up That Hill (A Deal with God)" (Kate Bush cover)
"I Am Not a Woman, I'm a God"
As much as it is a gigantic cliché to say that one has always had a passion for film, Matt Mueller has always had a passion for film. Whether it was bringing in the latest movie reviews for his first grade show-and-tell or writing film reviews for the St. Norbert College Times as a high school student, Matt is way too obsessed with movies for his own good.
When he's not writing about the latest blockbuster or talking much too glowingly about "Piranha 3D," Matt can probably be found watching literally any sport (minus cricket) or working at - get this - a local movie theater. Or watching a movie. Yeah, he's probably watching a movie.