Justin Bieber Goes Unplugged in Toronto, With Mixed Results

Star covers Beatles, offers seasonal medley at acoustic benefit show

Justin Bieber played an unusually stripped-down show in Toronto on Monday night. Credit: Jennifer Roberts for Rolling Stone

On Monday in Toronto, Justin Bieber, newly Grammy-nominated for his Skrillex and Diplo–produced single "Where Are Ü Now," performed a sold-out acoustic show for charity in a 1,500 capacity venue on the city's east side. It was his smallest hometown show in years (though Bieber is in fact from Stratford, Ontario; proceeds from last night's show benefited the Stratford House of Blessing) and came just three weeks after the release of Purpose, his fourth studio album, which was quickly punted from chart and sales dominance by Adele's 25

Bieber appeared nonchalant, even listless, while sauntering across the stage of the Danforth Music Hall. Accompanied by a guitarist, he performed for about 75 minutes wearing a baby-pink Supreme toque, hands lodged firmly in the pocket of an oversized grey hoodie, against a backdrop of abstract murals by local street artist Jimmy Chiale. Bieber's lax energy didn't match the crowd, who perked up noticeably about halfway into the show, when his voice finally warmed up — though it never seemed to get fully there through the 23-song set.

Maybe it was the lack of beats that did it: Bieber's 2015 has been defined by idiosyncratic production. Or maybe it was the fact that this show was a fan-fueled event for a good cause, and therefore lower stakes than an expensive arena show, but Bieber Unplugged amounted to a decent dress rehearsal. He started with songs from the new album ("What Do You Mean?," "I'll Show You" and "Purpose") before moving into a medley of seasonal tracks including "Christmas Love." Though Purpose is, at its core, evangelical in both affirming Bieber's Christianity and his insistence on a redemption narrative, one of the best album cuts is a bitter breakup track called "Love Yourself." "My mama don't like you and she likes everyone," goes the gaslight-y hook. But it's an acoustic track, and therefore marked the point in the show when the material matched the setting.

Bieber managed to hit the high notes on his best singles, "Baby," "All That Matters" and "Boyfriend," but sounded strained and in need of the fullness of backing vocals. The show's best moments came during surprising covers of Tracy Chapman's outsider anthem "Fast Car" and the Beatles' "Let It Be," the latter of which allowed the singer to show off his impressively fluid keyboard chops.

Bieber is clearly going through things, and performing an acoustic show that called back to the squeaky-clean sound of his early teen-pop era shows a reluctance to loosen his ties to that time. It's only a surprise given that Journals, his excellent 2014 R&B mixtape, was a sonic growth spurt. But the growing pains are getting realer: In the past few months he's made headlines for scolding overzealous fans. Last night, he asked the crowd, "What do you want for Christmas?" and they shouted, in near unison, "You!" He appeared to roll his eyes before saying, "Well, I just want my two front teeth." These flashes of annoyance betray the fact that Bieber still straddles two worlds: one where he's the polite pop star, and another where he's an edgier, and maybe more compelling, public presence.

Set List:

"What Do You Mean?"
"I'll Show You"
"Purpose"
"Christmas Love"
"Mistletoe"
"Hotline Bling"
"Love Yourself"
"Baby"
"Home to Mama"
"All That Matters"
"Boyfriend"
"Hold Tight"
"Be Alright"
"Trust"
"One Less Lonely Girl"
"So Sick"
"Down to Earth"
"Fast Car"
"One Time"
"Sorry"
"Let It Be"
"Nothing Like Us"
"As Long as You Love Me"