The door to the backstage room was ajar, allowing the curious to witness Angel Olsen and her band lounging around before their set. The scene wasn’t all that interesting — a couple couches, a chair, a few Stellas and a girl in a denim jacket with her face buried in her phone. The scene outside the room wasn’t exactly a lively affair either. There were a handful of faithful standing in front of the empty stage, and a few people smoking on the back patio while enjoying the curiously warm March evening. It was an extremely quiet night at the Larimer Lounge.
I had been intrigued by this young singer-songwriter’s music for some time, but I would not have counted myself among Angel Olsen’s biggest fans. So the fact that I was standing in an empty venue while she was carelessly occupied in whatever content was being served up on that small screen, made me question my decision to attend this particular show. Unfortunately, Cian Nugent’s opening set did nothing to ease my concern. Not to take anything away from his performance, the man was an animal on the guitar, but for whatever reason I wasn’t feeling it. So we made our way outside to enjoy the last bit of warmth – knowing that the patio would be covered in snow the next day.
When we made our way back inside, the place had been transformed. The crowd extended all the way to the front bar and it was packed tight. A mixture of relief (that Angel and her band would be performing for a good crowd) and disappointment (that we probably wouldn’t be able to see much) came across me as we found a spot at the side of the stage. Once again I had a clear view into the backroom. This time things were a little more interesting. A man was dancing around and trying to get the troops riled up. Ms. Olsen was picking at the label of her beer bottle in a nervous way. Then, as if an internal alarm clock sounded off, Angel and her band stood up, said “let’s do this!”, clanked their bottles together in a celebratory manner and made their way through the door onto the small stage.
And then everything changed again.
The spark that lit the fire last night was “Forgiven / Forgotten”– one of the fuzzed-out, guitar-driven tracks that mark the departure from what came before Angel’s latest album. It was one of the songs on the record that didn’t appeal to me. I had read that she wanted Burn Your Fire For No Witness to sound like it was recorded in a living room, and I thought she achieved that sound, but the production made it seem like the living room was made of aluminum. Prior to the show I was much more partial to her stripped-down work on Half Way Home and the Tiny Desk Concert versions of the new tracks. That first song changed my view completely. The girl in the denim jacket became a different person on that stage — someone who might not have been able to exist without the backing of a full band. I was afraid that her voice would drown in a sea of fuzz, but it did just the opposite — it surfed waves of static like it was always meant to. It was a beautiful marriage through tracks like “Hi-Five”, “Stars”, “Sweet Dreams” and “High & Wild”.
As much as the band heightened the sensory experience of the show, the members should be commended for knowing when to pull it back and let Angel’s vocal range stand center stage. Most of the Half Way Home material was hers alone, as were songs like “Iota” and “Windows” — the latter of which showcased a voice so light and fragile that I was afraid the words would shattered as they fell from her mouth. I’m not sure I have ever seen someone present so many personalities in the span of a one-hour set. There was the folk singer, the old-timey country singer, the rock ‘n roller and the punk. And then there was the personality of Angel Olsen herself –something that was only on display in between songs. All of these people channeled themselves through the same face — the one in the lights. That’s the part I’m still trying to wrap my head around today. These characters were all coming through a single person, with a single disposition. Angel Olsen stared into the middle distance, her face a blank slate, through every selection. There was a quiet beauty there, but it’s almost as if she were able to make herself invisible, so not to take away from the voices in the songs. It was inviting and unsettling all at the same time. It was the display of a true and special talent.
Her band left her alone (with the voices in her head) for the last two songs of the set. The penultimate was “California”, from the Sleepwalker single. The solo performance was what I had been hoping for, and it was moving, but by that point in the night I had already been sold on Angel Olsen as a band. I was really hoping for the Leonard Cohen tribute, “White Fire”, but the night ended with “May as Well” — proving once again that she was was born in the wrong decade. So many artists are going for that 50’s/60’s sound, but with Angel Olsen it doesn’t seem like she has to try at all. It’s almost as if she’s really from that era and she’s just found a way to make it work in these modern times.
I walked out of Larimer Lounge a fan of Angel Olsen and her band. Today I find myself listening to Burn Your Fire For No Witness in a new light. It’s a damn fine collection of songs from a truly unique voice. I’m glad I was able to attend the show last night and I’m glad Denver turned out to send these musicians to Austin on a high note.
Forgiven / Forgotten
Drunk and with Dreams
High & Wild
May as Well