by Jacob Wingate-Bishop

Following a shimmering sophomore effort in Diamonds & Dancefloors, the singer behind ‘Sweet but Psycho’, Ava Max, embarked on a European tour, stopping at the O2 Empire in Shepherd’s Bush, London, for two consecutive April nights. Tickets sold out within days. And when finally the night arrived, I had one question in mind: Can she really pull off all the glitter and gold of that album live?

Ava Max performing at the O2 Shepherd’s Bush Empire, London, 19.04.23. (Photo credit: Jacob Wingate-BIshop)

The answer I came to, after an ambitious opening set from up-and-coming American dance-popstar, emlyn and picks from across every corner of Ava Max’s career, was yes. But at what cost?

As Max stepped out onstage, backlit by a massive, metal diamond and to rapturous applause, it was clear why she is every inch a singer. From the trademark hair to dazzling, red-sequined jumpsuit, every motion she made proved one of elegance and power. She was like a composer to her orchestra of fans and backing dancers. Vocally, she was fantastic, delivering ABBA-esque from her debut, 2020’s Heaven & Hell as well as deeper cuts, like ‘Not Your Barbie Girl’ or 2019’s ‘Alone, Pt. II’ – a collaboration with DJ Alan Walker. Deep cuts (‘Belladonna’) were mingled with singles and chart-hits alike.

The set promised a lot from Max’s new record, too. Self-professed favourite, ‘Sleepwalker’ was a shot of pure adrenalin when brought to the stage, and singles, ‘Ghost’, ‘Maybe You’re the Problem’ and ‘Million Dollar Baby’ were sickly sweet pop delights. Diamonds & Dancefloors is an album that, when given the chance, flourishes onstage – not locked away behind a sound desk and synthesisers.

But the gig also suffered from a lack of audience participation. Ava Max greeted the crowd, gave a howling shoutout to London even brought someone up onstage for one of the numbers. Pre-recorded, well-meaning messages about love and unity played over the speakers, but the community element was still too synthetic for me. In part thanks to a pretty poor view of the stage, I felt a marked disconnect at points between those onstage and those before it.

For a gig that promoted so much equality and collective human spirit, it fell flat. It’s one of those things I can’t put into words – a feeling, or something deeper, the kind of thing Jung would rant about. But somehow, the thread between Max and her ‘Ava-tars’ wasn’t as strong as her energy would suggest. Asides to the crowd were few, micro-interactions all but non-existent, and little in the way of a parting speech.

The songs rocked, the crowds loved every moment, and it was a strong gig. There’s no denying that. Ava Max didn’t do anything wrong – in fact, vocally, her talents outshone the studio counterparts. When she marched back on after the encore and launched into ‘Sweet but Psycho’ – her defining hit – the crowd raved like mass dancing hysteria had taken hold. Max’s debut was celebrated with a bang, and a glittering, shimmering, sequin-clad beast like Diamonds & Dancefloors was done justice at the Empire. But what makes a gig a truly special one just wasn’t there. And in the long run, that’s sure to leave a deeper wound.