Camila Cabello, Shawn Mendes, Bebe Rexha dazzle at star-studded Poptopia

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Camila Cabello

Camila Cabello performs at Poptopia at SAP Center in San Jose on Dec. 1, 2018. Photos: Alessio Neri.

SAN JOSE — The stars came out to shine Saturday night at SAP Center for the annual spectacle that is Poptopia. The concert, organized by 99.7 NOW, has quickly become one of the most anticipated holiday concerts. While the line-up couldn’t quite much last year’s headliners of Taylor Swift and Ed Sheeran, it still featured some of the biggest Top 40 performers, led by Camila Cabello, and had no lack of firepower, featuring one stellar set after another.

Camila Cabello served up an electrifying closing set filled with dancers, smoke cannons and all the production of an area show. Cabello opened with the mid-tempo ballad “Never Be the Same” before shifting gears to the upbeat Latin-flare of “She Loves Control.” The Cuban-born singer-songwriter is a compelling and versatile performer. She stuck every move of choreography, sung with a surprisingly impressive range and carried herself with a positive magnetic energy that exuded her passion. Cabello’s set continued with a pair of upbeat jams: the almost tropically influenced “Inside Out” and her Machine Gun Kelly collaboration, “Bad Things.”

Camila Cabello

Camila Cabello

“You have a reputation, Bay Area,” Cabello said early in the set. “You have a reputation of being very loud.”

The crowd backed up that reputation throughout the night.

Cabello mixed in a snippet of the Elvis classic “Can’t Help Falling In Love” before sitting behind the piano to deliver a strong vocal take on the ballad “Consequences.” While not too different from her opening set at Levi’s Stadium on Taylor Swift’s Reputation World Tour, her performance still felt fresh and new. Cabello finished with a trio of upbeat songs, including “Into It” and the smash “Havana,” which included its own mid-song salsa dance breakdown before being shrouded in confetti and smoke. Camila Cabello’s set was evidence of a burgeoning superstar on the rise to be the next big thing.

Earlier in the night, singer-songwriter Shawn Mendes turned in a show-stopping set that lived up to his high Poptopia billing. Mendes has come a long way from performing with just an acoustic guitar. He came out swinging with a rousing take on “There’s Nothing Holding Me Back,” and lived up to the namesake of the song for the next half hour. Mendes proved to be an adept musician and talented songwriter, playing it cool while delivering every lyric effortlessly and earnestly. In a live setting, Mendes’ material came to life, especially with the support of his backing band. He tore through his hits, including “Lost in Japan” and “Stitches” to the adoration of the heavily female-skewed audience.

Shawn Mendes

Shawn Mendes

Mendes prefaced “In My Blood” by saying it was one of the most personal songs he’d ever written. He concluded with a spacious and moody take on Kings of Leon’s “Use Somebody” before transitioning into “Treat You Better.”

Holiday radio shows can be tough on artist. The sets are rapid-fire, ranging anywhere from 15 to 45 minutes. That requires having a tight setlist packed with only the hits and little time left to connect with the audience. But everything ran like a well-oiled machine Saturday. A revolving stage allowed for almost no downtime between artists.

Bebe Rexha

Bebe Rexha

One of the surprise sets of the night came from pop songstress Bebe Rexha, who took the stage second. She grabbed the crowd with her first note and didn’t let go, delivering a thrilling and enjoyable set. Bebe Rexha had all the vocal chops, but adds to it a natural stage presence and an effusive energy. She opened with “Me, Myself, and I,” bounding across the stage with instant energy. She covered David Guetta’s “Hey Mama,” on which she pulled two young fans from the crowd (including one in a penguin suit) to dance with her. Rexha was also flanked by a phenomenal backing band that arranged the material into stadium-ready anthems. She finished with the Florida Georgia Line country hit “Meant To Be,” a song she she said “changed my life.”

Charlie Puth

Charlie Puth

One of the toughest tasks of the night fell on singer-songwriter Charlie Puth, who was sandwiched between Camila Cabello and Shawn Mendes. Puth had his work cut out for him but was up for the challenge. He was one of the most naturally talented vocalists on Saturday’s bill, with an impressive range that includes a silky-smooth falsetto when he travels to the upper reaches of his vocals. Puth’s delivery was effortless, and his musicianship unmatched. On the opening song, Puth even strapped on a keytar and delivered an extended solo. He joked throughout his set of having to work around Mendes’ gear. Puth closed his set with the soulful “Attention” and led the crowd in a singalong of the memorable “See You Again.”

Why Don't We

Why Don’t We

Rising boy band Why Don’t We was the other highlight Saturday. Why Don’t We has built a tremendous fan following and the group’s performance showed why it’s an act on the rise. Consistently getting some of the loudest reactions of the night, Why Don’t We took the stage to a deafening scream from the young audience. The dramatic opening featured each member taking his verse under a single spotlight before disappearing into darkness. The impressive part of Why Don’t We was the group’s focus on singing rather than flashy dance moves. Why Don’t We opened with “Trust Fund Baby” and tore through a tight but short set.

Omaha duo Jack & Jack opened the show. The two had just 15 minutes to make its mark but took full advantage of its time with a set that varied from more rap-based songs to more mainstream pop and synth ballads.

Follow writer Mike DeWald at Twitter.com/mike_dewald. Follow photographer Alessio Neri at Instagram.com/windowofcolor and Windowofcolor.com.

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