Review | Olivia Rodrigo Proved Why She’s a Pop Powerhouse at the Santa Barbara Bowl

Holly Humberstone Offers Up a One-Woman Opening Act

On the first anniversary of Olivia Rodrigo's breakout album, 'Sour,' she put the "power" in power ballad. | Credit: Carl Perry

Call it foreshadowing when this sleepy town trended on Twitter the moment Olivia Rodrigo tickets went on sale last December. The luckiest of the Livies secured their chance to witness the teen superstar – and everyone else was left to tweet out their feelings

Photographic evidence that Interscope marketing exec Daniel Sena did, in fact, make a fan sign to celebrate the breakout album’s first birthday. | Credit: Caitlin Kelley

Fast forward to the first anniversary of the pop wunderkind’s breakout album, Sour, and the crowd is teased with the first few notes of “brutal” until the purple curtains open to reveal a prom-night setup decked out in tinsel streamers. “Where’s my fucking teenage dream?” the 19-year-old ironically speak-sings in Katy Perry’s hometown. Goaded by riffs straight out of the riot grrrl canon, the teen-skewing crowd excitedly screamed the lyrics back to her, as if to answer her question. Rodrigo may be a Disney star, but her hooks are sharp as knives.

If the pre-show set list full of artists like Alanis Morrissette and Yeah Yeah Yeahs was any indication, Rodrigo wears her influences on her sleeve. Later in the evening, she whipped out a cover of No Doubt’s “Just a Girl” sans the L.A.M.B. vibrato. Back in the ‘90s, the ska-punk anthem perfected the art of weaponizing the trappings of femininity to point the finger at surrounding misogyny – not unlike Rodrigo’s own forays into the pop-punk world. 

The amphitheater was basically a self-contained universe of Rodrigo-isms. With an unofficial dress code of corset tops and butterfly hair clips, it’s like the “deja vu” music video came to life and multiplied. Awash in purple, the stage became an outgrowth of Rodrigo’s “baby synesthesia.” 

Credit: Carl Perry

The set list itself formed a BPM gradient as the pop-rock hits – including a faithful cover of Avril Lavigne’s “Complicated” – faded into tear-stained ballads and back again. The slower section made it easier to understand why a chart-topper would opt for mid-sized venues. It’s easier to craft intimacy in the live space when your audience can directly connect with you. (A notion underscored by opener Holly Humberstone’s one-woman set earlier in the evening.)

An ocean of smartphone flashlights waved in the air to “hope ur ok,” the sparse ode to old friends, that was rounded out by the band backing into a more propulsive, country-leaning track – until the curtains closed behind Rodrigo to isolate the sound of her voice and acoustic guitar on the outro. The bedroom popsmith got even closer to the pit during her self-penned High School Musical track, “All I Want,” as she sat at the edge of the stage for the first half. 

All of these forces came to a head on the single that started it all. Introducing “driver’s license” as being about “a super gnarly heartbreak I went through,” Rodrigo recounts how her best friend finally understood the extent of her suffering when she played her this song – a testament to how “music can capture how we’re feeling better than words ever could.” 

Taking to the piano, Rodrigo leads off the understated first verse, as it slowly picks up steam. The sold-out crowd provided ample accompaniment in the form of a sing-along until the band jumped in. Then we arrived at the best bridge of 2021 – and the swell was so massive that it fully embodied the “power” in power ballad. 

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