Published Jul 14, 2016At her first ever show in Halifax, Julia Holter stared death in the face.
"I've got all these gravestones in front of me," she said, pointing out her view from the stage at St. Matthew's United Church. With the front doors open on a warm summer night, her line of sight pointed straight out to the Old Burying Ground across the street, an historic cemetery dating back to the city's founding in 1749 where some 12,000 people have been buried over the years.
"It's actually very inspiring," said Holter, before launching into "Everytime Boots," an upbeat song about staying put in a place, a time, a feeling. "Every time I do put on boots / I feel the charge as a good thing to run to," she sang, "But I only hear the rattlesnake winds / They blow dust and I'm helpless to fight back."
There was nothing helplessly stuck about Holter's set. Backed by a three-piece band — Devin Hoff on double bass, Corey Fogel on drums and Dina Maccabee on viola — Holter spent the show standing up at her keyboard, centrestage, pounding her hands on the keys while performing with an infectious grin on her face, even during heavier material. Her vocals, sharply enunciated in the style of a Kate Bush or Fiona Apple, daggered into each syllable, puncturing the melodies surrounding them.
As for the songs themselves, they felt untethered from any specific place or time, but built on a deep naturalism, drenched with the sense of flora, fauna and the elements. The bulk of the 12-song set consisted of material from last year's Have You In My Wilderness, with standouts including the harpsichord-and-bass driven "Feel You" and a long, compelling version of "Vasquez" in the encore. At times, the bass, drums and viola played less like the songs' foundation than their colouring, their sounds dancing around each other as they floated upwards towards the church ceiling.
And yet, Holter has pop chops, too: the show ended with a straightforward but incredibly catchy take on "Don't Make Me Over," a Bacharach/David song that was their first hit for Dionne Warwick. It marked one of the moments in the set when all the notes seemed struck together with thunderous might, as if powerful enough to shake the dead from their graves.