Angel Olsen Revels in Silence

Monday’s intimate performance at the Nourse showcased the singer-songwriter’s profound talents.

Angel Olsen (Taylor Boylston)

Unless you’re seeing Paul Simon — an option that’s sadly no longer available — the odds of hearing the sounds of silence at a concert are minimal at best. While acts like Sufjan Stevens and Joanna Newsom are often able to quiet a crowd when the hushed nature of a song calls for it, a cloud of idle chatter still inevitably floats through the space.

True silence seems to have no home at a modern music show, which makes what transpired Monday night at the Nourse Theater in Hayes Valley all the more memorable.

For those unfamiliar with the venue, the Nourse is gorgeous theater that sits across the street from Davies Symphony Hall. Built in 1927, the space has recently played host to San Francisco’s beloved City Arts & Lectures series. While the Nourse can hold 1,600 patrons, the theater is notably intimate, divided between an orchestra section and a balcony above. In short, it’s an ideal venue for the likes of Bruce Springsteen and Gary Shteyngart to sit opposite a moderator and engage in conversation — but it also lends itself beautifully to the talents of musicians like Angel Olsen and her opening act, Hand Habits.

I’m not sure I’ve ever actually heard a pin drop, but in the moments between songs (and sometimes even during them), it seemed plausible that even that most delicate sound would carry in the reverent quiet conjured by an audience open to keeping their mouths shut for the duration of the evening.

Meg Duffy — the lone performer behind Hand Habits — was the first to pierce the void, playing a set that encompassed her striking debut, Wildly Idle (Humble Before the Void), new cuts, and yes, even a cover from the aforementioned Simon and Garfunkel. Her songs are pensive and unrushed, built around ethereal guitar lines that occasionally lapse into bouts of distortion but more often serve as atmospheric accompaniment for Duffy’s poetic lyrics.

“One time I was playing in San Francisco, and this blogger named Daniel wrote a review where he said that he wished I would move more on stage,” Duffy noted. “Maybe I should get some of those wild, inflatable tube men and put them on either side of me.”

Daniel’s demands be damned, there was nothing lacking in Duffy’s performance, which valiantly set the tone for evening’s main entertainment.

Before Monday night, I’d only ever seen Angel Olsen once before, as the supporting act for Arcade Fire at Oracle Arena. While she gave the performance her all, the situation was the polar opposite of what Olsen’s music requires. At Oracle, she was tasked with playing inside a wrestling ring that would later host the headliners, who billed the evening as a 360-degree performance.

(Zack Ruskin)

Olsen doesn’t need such theatrics to frame her songs. The five or spotlights and a couple of guitars were all the company she required to deliver a set largely composed of tracks from early in her career. Embarking on her first solo tour of the U.S. in four years, Olsen seemed at home at the Nourse, pairing lullaby wails with sparse guitar work. Seemingly enjoying the opportunity to engage with the audience, she professed shock upon learning that the Nourse was not selling alcohol at the show.

“So we’re all sober then?” she asked with mischievous concern. “Well I drank a kombucha earlier and pretended it was wine.”

Though lacking in adult libations, there was an undeniably punchdrunk power at work each time Olsen harnessed the full power of her voice, be it on the standout “Unfucktheworld” from Burn Your Fire for No Witness or on songs culled from her first releases — 2011’s Strange Cacti EP and 2010’s Lady of the Waterpark. As each note hung in the dark confines of the Nourse, it became readily apparent that the value of a seated, noiseless show is not just its appeal for the lazy and introverted amongst us, but also as a space where the talents of an artist like Olsen can truly shine.

Make no mistake: Angel Olsen can play any damn stage she so chooses. That said, any who have the opportunity to see her apart from the din and mayhem of a rock club or arena will be glad for the effort. As she ended the evening with an encore of Bruce Springsteen’s “Tougher Than the Rest,” the true power of the Nourse as an underrated gem in a city rich with music venues was once again on display.

Just remember to bring your own wine.

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