Photographs by Katrina Lat
For those who think the notion of YouTube cover song stardom is, like, so 2008, the Phoenix on Saturday night would have come as quite the shock. With two YouTube artists on the bill – led by husband and wife headliners Us the Duo – and a sold out room, it seems the Bieber effect is still alive. And considering the irrefutable talent brought to the stage, it ought to be.
The youthful crowd was greeted by 18-year-old Hailey Knox, a songstress who turns heads singing covers on YouTube. The New York native is on tour promoting her debut EP, a collection of original pop and R&B, but this was her first time in Toronto. Standing not so tall with her blonde hair tucked under a beret, the audience proved ill-prepared for the discovery in her first song: this girl has got soul far bigger than she is.
Husky yet velvety smooth, Knox’s voice pays homage to the likes of Adele and Amy Winehouse. Ed Sheeran is clearly an influence on her live show logistics; her set revolved around a pre- tracked loop pedal that she built overtop of with a now iconically small-bodied acoustic guitar. Most of Knox’s original material paints her as the spokesgirl for global pre-teen angst. Her performance of “Awkward”, a cringe-worthy bubblegum ballad that tells an overbearing mother to repeatedly “back off”, epitomized the reality of her age. But before the 20-something crowd could finish their eye roll, Knox was crafting layers of complex guitar riffs on her pedal, swooning the sultry Lana Del Rey-inspired “Loopty Loop” with more maturity than vocalists twice her age.
Regardless, it was actually refreshing to hear a teenage girl singing about more than puppy love. Knox seems to be another in the band of YouTube sensations like Tori Kelly and Alessia Cara, artists who are writing music that lassos Generation Z by its interest in self-love and individualism. That said, the millennial audience on Saturday night was equally bewitched. With a big personality and an even bigger voice, Knox was an explosive preface to an otherwise mellow night.
Next up, Us the Duo said hello by giving the crowd exactly what they wanted: a real life version of what they fell in love with online. The charming married couple found success posting covers on YouTube and Vine and are considered the first to find fame from the latter, but their annual “Top Hits” mashups were what attracted the masses. They opened Saturday night with the 2014 version and were met with a wall of approval and gratitude from the crowd.
The stage was dressed like their living room, sporting a red vintage couch and a standing lamp. The duo, consisting of Carissa and Mike Alvarado, explained that this was “where it all started” – a shared living room couch and a post on Vine. It’s clear that the appeal of Us the Duo is in the ‘Us’. Their angelic harmonies, their contagious chemistry, their puzzle-piece personalities: the crowd is in love with their love. In a way both genuine and cunning, Us the Duo put on a show that satisfied every expectation of that love. Basically, these two knew their audience.
From Jack Johnson to The Foundations, the rest of the night was spotlighted by sweetly arranged pop covers. Carissa stole the show with her vocals, which slid from powerful belts to almost childlike resolves. Mike showed off his multi-instrumental chops and even played the bass and keyboard simultaneously on “Better Together”. In between covers, the duo pulled out originals from their collection of albums, all polished pop anthems with messages similar to
Knox’s. The set itself felt wandering and a bit impromptu, which legitimized the living room atmosphere while garnering some disengagement from their otherwise adoring fans.
Us the Duo offered up a picture perfect version of themselves – a recreation of their YouTube personas – for a crowd that devoured every bite. Although the music was confined and politely pop, their vocal talents and gush-worthy banter kept things interesting.
For an audience that likely saw them just to see them, they definitely delivered.