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Concert Experience

Ryan Beatty’s “Calico Tour", Houston, 2/16/2024

I recently had the privilege of winning two tickets to see Ryan Beatty in concert.

February 29, 2024

I recently had the privilege of winning two tickets to see Ryan Beatty in concert. It was all incredibly last minute; one of the other PR directors told me I had won the tickets during an officer meeting, and I remember hurriedly texting my best friend out a tentative plan to get out of tomorrow's classes early and haul ass to Houston. To be honest, I haven't listened to his music in months, but I was nonetheless excited to be hearing his album Calico, which I vaguely remembered to be a pleasant listen, in person.

I like to think that Beatty and I have a lot in common. In 2018, we were both coming to terms with our identities, both attempting to find ourselves through art and music. A former Disney star, Beatty had recently come out, and channeled this newfound freedom, fear, and excitement into his debut album, Boy in Jeans. By 2020, we were deeply entangled within independent music circles in our own ways. While Beatty was appearing in Brockhampton projects, Tyler, the Creator Christmas singles, and gearing up to tour his second album, I was sitting in class, looking down at the phone in my lap trying to get Brockhampton merchandise and win Camp Flog Gnaw ticket giveaways.

There's a sort of dreamy haze around Beatty's first albums, his voice like a light coming through clouds of twinkling synths and muted drums. His lyrics have a bit of an adolescent charm to them, especially on Boy in Jeans. Every song seems like it aims to subvert typically heteronormative tropes like the senior prom and meetups on the football field to weave stories of love and longing. It's often unclear as to who Ryan sings as, the line between the stories of a character, a younger Beatty, and the collective joys and pains of queer youth everywhere ever blurrier. The album leads with the uplifting "Haircut", a slinky, R&B-inspired tune about new beginnings. "I smile on, and feel the closure," Beatty sings, "I finally feel like me again."

The show was at White Oak Music Hall, one of Houston's smaller music venues, in the beautiful neighborhood of the Heights. There's a suburban charm to the area, and my friend and I gushed over the colorful wooden homes nearby as the line slowly made its way in. The wood seemed to continue into the venue, with the walls, stairs, and railings covered in a warm brown paneling, almost a picture frame directing everyone's eyes to the stage. The setup for the concert was minimal. It looked like the crew had simply rolled the instruments out into a semicircle in the center of the stage, from a drum set on the far left to an upright piano on the right. In the center of the arc, there was nothing more than what looked like an amp box and a mic stand. There wasn't much in the way of stage effects or decoration aside from a fog machine, which began to hiss out smoke as the band began to file in. The first to take the stage was the piano player. He began to play a simple progression that winded and turned as the remaining band members took the stage, each one taking their place before Beatty himself, wearing a brown zip-up hoodie and blue jeans, took a seat on the amp box in the middle of the stage.

Calico is a radical departure from Beatty's earlier work. The dreamy, vaguely alternative R&B sound that defined his first two albums is shelved here for something much more stripped-back and acoustic. I like to think that the staging reflected this new approach. It felt almost like a jam session we were sitting in on, with the piano player and guitarists occasionally adding their own ornament to songs off of Calico. While Beatty would usually dance and interact with the audience at his past shows, he simply sat, drank his tea, and made his appreciation for the band's lush accompaniment known.

There's an undeniable honesty to Calico that is especially apparent live. Beatty's songwriting spares no detail -- the lyrics to songs like "Cinnamon Bread" build collages out of little sensory details: a copy of David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest, the sound of a piano being played a bit out of time and tune, the scent of cinnamon bread in the air. "Multiple Endings", later on in the album, paints a picture of a TV running, of fleeting intimacy during a sticky Texas summer. There is no longer any confusion as to who Ryan sings about. As the lights shone down on Beatty, sitting there on his amp box, it was abundantly clear that every lyric, every joy and ache in his voice, reflected stories entirely his own.

Something that remained with me after his set had ended, after the crowd had filtered out, even after my friend and I had stuffed our faces with late-night breakfast and driven home, was Beatty's performance of "Haircut". The arrangement was simple enough, with the drummer, pianist, and bassist laying down a relaxed tempo for the lap steel and acoustic guitars to glide over. What stuck with me, I think, was the vocal performance.

"It starts right now," the chorus of the song goes, a simple statement of the song's position as the opening for the album as well as a statement of the song's intent to start a new chapter of Beatty's career. It's a fun moment, but there's a pop sheen and a lightness to it that, like a lot of Boy in Jeans, comes across as a bit adolescent.

In the six years since his debut, Ryan's voice has changed. While he sings as clearly as ever, his voice takes on a deeper, more soulful timbre than it did in 2018. The six years of experience since that debut are evident in his relaxed, assured delivery. The chorus was no longer the simple pop hook it used to be. There's an intention in Beatty's voice, the phrase said with more and more conviction as the crowd began to sing along. This is the start of something new, Beatty seemed to affirm, nodding along as the band crescendoed around him. "It starts right now," he declared, with a conviction I still think about today.

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