As the sun dipped below the San Francisco horizon at Portola 2023, an unexpected star emerged on stage, captivating the audience in ways no one had anticipated. Nelly Furtado, the Canadian pop sensation with Portuguese heritage, took center stage, and what followed was nothing short of magical.
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Furtado, a name synonymous with chart-topping hits during the early 2000s, was already halfway through her set when she began to tear up. She had just concluded her iconic song, “I’m Like a Bird,” which had catapulted her to international stardom. The thunderous applause and cheers from the San Francisco crowd deeply moved her.
Kneeling down on stage as her band crescendoed to the finale, she wiped away tears and expressed her heartfelt gratitude to the thousands who had joined her to sing along to the timeless chorus. “That’s why I make music!” she exclaimed, as the audience reached for the high notes together, singing, “Though my love is true.”
Furtado, who has gracefully transitioned into a legacy act in her enduring career, had just experienced a spontaneous outpouring of joy that any performer dreams of. The festival’s main stage organically transformed into a massive sing-along. The crowd, unprompted, raised their arms and swayed to the feel-good rhythm. “Keep doing that,” Furtado commanded, becoming a conduit for channeling positive energy between artist and audience.
This a cappella moment, though slightly discordant compared to Furtado’s lush vocals, became a festival highlight, perfectly timed with the sunset. Despite being up against big-name DJs with state-of-the-art light shows and pulsating bass, the elation felt during Furtado’s set was unmatched for the rest of the day.
Furtado’s name had stood out when the lineup for the second installment of Portola was announced earlier in the year. The festival, known for its focus on big beat DJs and dance music, had previously featured acts like Jamie xx and Fred Again. The inclusion of Furtado alongside headliners like Skrillex and Eric Prydz raised eyebrows, but head booker Danny Bell had a vision. “People might find the Nelly Furtado booking a little unconventional,” Bell said. “But once they witness the show and understand the context, a celebration of dance music and a big party, they’ll remember that her songs truly resonate.”
Even Furtado herself acknowledged the uniqueness of her placement at a dance festival. On her Instagram Story leading up to the event, she shared a picture of a jacket emblazoned with the words “House x Techno” and added “And also pop” in lipstick pink writing.
Her 6 p.m. set began with her three-piece band gradually building up to her 2006 hit single, “Say It Right.” The song, one of many from her influential third album, “Loose,” which she recorded alongside Timbaland, fused her pop sensibilities with dance and hip-hop influences, a recipe that perfectly suited the Portola audience.
Following “Say It Right,” Furtado treated the crowd to her rendition of “Maneater,” cleverly repurposing the song as an empowering anthem for women.
Introducing her early radio hit “Turn Off the Light,” Furtado reminisced about her debut San Francisco appearance 22 years prior. She asked who had been at Bimbo’s 365 Club in March 2001 to witness her “play this joint.”
A review of that Bimbo’s performance from the San Francisco Chronicle had been skeptical, noting her “toothy grin” and questioning whether Furtado’s talent would endure. However, nearly two decades later, with a rousing response from a youthful Portola audience, Furtado’s status as a pop stalwart had been firmly established. Even Drake recognized her star power, bringing her on stage to duet on “I’m Like a Bird” in Toronto.
Throughout her set, Furtado occasionally shared the stage with two backup choreographers: Tynomi Banks from RuPaul’s Drag Race and Matthew Cuff, known as Snoopy. Their modern house dancing added a contemporary flair to the performance, igniting the crowd’s energy even further.
Australian house music producer Dom Dolla had performed an hour before Furtado on a nearby stage, and she joined him during his set to deliver their spirited new collaboration, “Eat Your Man.” In a reciprocal gesture, Dom Dolla later appeared with Furtado towards the end of her set to play their electrifying track, wherein Furtado playfully referenced her hit, “Fly like a bird.”
As the 50-minute set coincided with the sunset, downtown San Francisco bathed in a magnificent magenta hue. Furtado engaged the audience with a simple question, “Am I throwing you off?” before launching into arguably her biggest song.
“Promiscuous,” a chart-topping hit from 2006, has retained its timeless allure. The track not only introduced a generation to the word “promiscuous” but also provided a seductive backdrop for intimate encounters. The call and response between Timbaland and Furtado on stage, addressing passionate intentions, remains irresistible, even if one only half-remembers the lyrics.
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In the chorus, when everyone joins in, synths flash like a comet’s tail, and Furtado masterfully conjures the playful games that lovers play.
In conclusion, Nelly Furtado’s performance at Portola 2023 defied expectations and showcased her enduring appeal. Her unexpected presence at a dance-focused festival served as a reminder of the timeless quality of her music and her ability to connect with audiences of all ages.