Published Oct 09, 2015The last time I saw American indie-folk singer Angel Olsen perform, back in 2013, it was in front of about two dozen people at the Media Club, one of the smallest venues in Vancouver. It was so empty that most of the crowd sat on the floor to take in her set. She's gained a lot of traction since that review was published, having signed to Jagjaguwar for the release of her second studio album, Burn Your Fire for No Witness, in early 2014, and toured in its wake ever since.
This time around, she sold out the Biltmore on a Thursday night (October 8), and boy, was it hot in there. Her stage presence had evolved to capitalise on the situation. She appeared far more comfortable onstage, confident and outspoken in her banter, if a touch on the tipsy side from her announced beer breaks.
Supported by guitarist Stewart Bronaugh, drummer Joshua Jaeger and bassist Emily Elhaj, Olsen fanned the fumes of sweat and fog out of her face at various points during her set, still largely drawn from her Jagjaguwar debut, and noted that the place smelled like a Yankee Candle store. Before her rendition of "Sweet Dreams," she acknowledged the heat and mused that everyone in the room was exchanging chemicals, that we were breathing and sharing each other's air in the space full of "smoke and farts."
At other points, she relayed the story of meeting a male border guard named She who thankfully didn't arrest them, pretended she was leaving an answering machine message when asking the sound guy for less reverb in her monitor, claimed "Lights Out" was about getting the fuck out of there if you didn't want to be there, and proclaimed that it was everyone's birthday, so they were going to rent roller skates and skate in a circle. It suffices to say, the soft-spoken, slightly awkward performer of only two years ago was long gone.
Unfortunately, the rest of her live show has not evolved to the same extent. Olsen's voice seems to have lost a smidgen of its natural grace, having to work harder to maintain her arresting, unearthly vibrato. More noticeably, her music has gone in a more rock-oriented direction since her early outsider Joan Baez-come-Patsy Cline roots, but it's still not exactly propelled by its beats. Even though her full band arrangements were more upbeat and fleshed out than her droning solo stuff, more in line with Sharon Van Etten and Cat Power, her band didn't bring a whole lot to the table. The overall sound often came off a hair sluggish, a pronounced sense of lagging in "High and Wild" while the dynamic progression of (tentatively titled) new track "Str Fqr" felt cumbersome.
The crowd seemed to reflect this unevenness. Though packed in as tight as jerky, and cheering enthusiastically, if briefly, between tracks, the crowd stayed mostly stationary, subtly nodding their heads, which made them look more subdued than they were. They were prone to chattiness, though, rambling over the first half of "Acrobat" until the power of Olsen's conviction sucked them in and hushed them.
Yet, when it worked, it worked amazingly. Left alone near the end of the set to perform with just her electric guitar, Olsen played an as yet untitled new song that lamented her loss of faith in people, and the whole world seemed to slow down around her, if only for a second.
After playing "Unfucktheworld," Olsen introduced "White Fire" by saying it always made her laugh; this was obviously sarcastic as the first line of the song is "Everything is tragic / It all just falls apart," demonstrating the kind of wit that she likely uses to keep her spirits up in living with such dark subject matter. As the song progressed, total silence eclipsed the room, so quiet that a photographer was softly chastised for the volume of his shutter.
Her band snuck onstage near the end of the track, seamlessly joining in the texture to propel it to a jammy Velvet Underground-esque conclusion. If they can get into that zone more consistently, Olsen's live show will be become legendary.