Review: Noah Kahan turns concert-going into a spiritual experience at his first of three Toronto shows

Special guest Shawn Mendes raises “wow” factor

Who: Noah Kahan
Where: Scotiabank Arena, 40 Bay St.
When: Sat., April 6
Vibe: Soulful, tender, intimate banger-fest
Highlight: A surprise appearance by Shawn Mendes
Next: A few tour stops in Quebec, then back to Toronto on Sun., April 14, and Tue., April 16
Rating: NNNNN (out of 5)

THERE AREN’T too many artists who could make a 19,000-seat arena in Toronto feel like an intimate, wood-panelled living room in small-town Vermont.

But then again, there aren’t too many artists who could forge an entire musical genre — one that landed Noah Kahan a Best New Artist nomination at this year’s Grammys — around the foliage and melancholia of New England.

Kahan’s discography traverses pain in all forms. One moment, he laments the divorce of his parents; the next, he exalts his close relationship with his mother, built from the ashes of their broken family. In his 27 years on Earth, Kahan’s tried out innumerable coping mechanisms — alcohol-fuelled confessions and bittersweet memories of his hometown make frequent appearances in his folk-infused songwriting — but pain, regret and a desperate search to be understood always seem to peek through the musical retellings of his life.

You might think such dreary subject matter would make for a gloomy bummer of a concert, especially given that on the evening of April 6, Kahan was “as sick as a sick ox,” in his words.

You’d be wrong.

On the We’ll All Be Here Forever Tour, Kahan positions himself as a charismatic mega-pastor and his concert as a refuge where all are welcome to feel their feelings. There’s crying, yes — songs like Orange Juice, about recovering from alcoholism, and Come Over, about his childhood home, elicit sobs as much as they do fervent singalongs — but there’s so much levity, too. Kahan uses his dry sense of humour like percussion, peppering each musical interlude with self-deprecating jokes and heartfelt thanks to his audience. From the very first number, the radio-favourite Dial Drunk, it’s abundantly clear how much Kahan cares for the people screaming his lyrics — almost as much as he cares about the people and places who inspired them.

And on Kahan’s first night in Toronto, that care shines through in the fact that he performs at all. Though he makes it through an abridged version of his set, it’s clear Kahan’s struggling towards the end of the concert: high notes that previously came so easily to him become more and more gravelly as he sprints towards Stick Season. But then again, if that’s what Kahan sounds like sick, I can’t even imagine how high-energy a gig this must be when he’s at full strength. In between tender apologies for being unwell, Kahan delivers raw, gut-wrenching performances of a fabulous collection of songs, ranging from older favourites like False Confidence and Godlight to Stick Season standards like Call Your Mom and All My Love.

And of course, who could forget that final encore? For his final, twangy, stick-themed banger, Kahan brings out Shawn Mendes, a party trick in itself, given Mendes’s absence from touring as of late.

On Saturday, Kahan tells his audience about a Toronto gig years ago, for which he had to spend $500 of his own money on tickets in order to be able to claim that he’d sold out a venue.

Well, with a work ethic, production standard and discography as stellar as his has become on the We’ll All Be Here Forever Tour, I doubt Kahan will need to worry about doing that ever again.