“I never want to stop playing, even if I’m playing for 10 people in a bar,” Shawn Mendes recently told Billboard for a cover story preceding his South By Southwest showcase for Billboard + Samsung’s The Stage on Saturday night (Mar. 19). “And I only want to play bigger shows if I get to do it by making music that’s authentic.”
With a special performance at the Moody Amphitheater at Waterloo Park in Austin, Mendes was able to demonstrate both his unyielding passion for playing live shows and ambition for pushing his creative limits. At long last, Mendes will be able to support his 2020 album Wonder on the road later this year after pandemic-caused delays, and he used a hyper-spirited SXSW performance to preview blown-out, rafter-rattling treatments of the album tracks, as well as a few new songs ready to be flaunted from city to city. If authenticity is Mendes’ ultimate goal, Saturday night’s show — every handclap, howl, croon and charismatic grin emitted from the stage — was a satisfying start to the singer-songwriter showing his full self to his fans during this period of personal growth.
The hits remained gratifying, as an audience spanning tweens, college kids, senior citizens and everything in between got to bellow out “Señorita,” “There’s Nothing Holdin’ Me Back,” “Treat You Better” and “If I Can’t Have You,” among others. But the hardcore fans were there to see Wonder in its full, postponed glory, as Mendes’ fourth studio album was his first to not yet receive a proper tour.
The silver lining of the delay: songs like “305,” “Monster” and the Wonder title track all sound fleshed-out and thoughtfully presented now. “Call My Friends” in particular highlighted the SXSW set, its chorus more muscular than its falsetto-driven crescendo plays out on the record and Mendes’ voice hunkered down on the verses with greater gravity. And “305” smartly included some special audience participation, as Mendes pulled a young fan up onstage to get the album deep cut off the ground.
The truest snapshot of where Mendes is right now, however, came toward the end of the setlist, when he played his recent single “It’ll Be Okay” for the first time, then debuted a new song, “When You’re Gone.” The structures of the two tracks couldn’t be different — “It’ll Be Okay” a slow-growing piano ballad that cracks open into an anthem, “When You’re Gone” a rollicking pop-rock track that sounds ready for radio play — but Mendes treated each with bleeding-heart earnestness, and the audience couldn’t help but buy in. Both songs possess a weight and polish that could make them staples of Mendes’ set for years to come, and hint at promising new paths for his songwriting.
The performance ended with “In My Blood,” perhaps Mendes’ most fiercely beloved hit, and a song that sounds spectacular as both an intimate piano plea and a chugging guitar rocker. Mendes presented the song in both styles on Saturday night, and couldn’t have looked more proud while doing so. A road warrior with plenty of hits and pockets full of new ideas, Mendes is clearly ready to get back in front of audiences and try his best to dazzle them. As such, his SXSW show felt like the start of something special.