Thursday, Sept. 12, 2013
Great American Music Hall
Better than: Fancy food and bridge hype.
Julia Holter ascended stage at the Great American Music Hall with an eclectic ensemble at her wings. Cello, violin, saxophone and drum set -- four musicians flanked Holter at center behind a keyboard. She wore a long crimson dress bound with a metal belt; a medallion dangled from her neck. The drummer made the first move, carefully swelling an array of cymbals. A cracked one rattled and a tiny one quickly petered out. It wasn't the quickly-rise-to-a-crescendo sort of swell that rock drummers employ. Rather, it was nuanced and deliberate. The drummer's disciplined technique was already on display, and set the serious tone for an evening of engaging and somewhat highbrow compositions tempered by Holter's warm and expressive vocals.
Holter has technique, too. A student of music at CalArts, her first two albums dealt in lush, experimental pop songs about subjects like ancient Greece. Holter recorded them herself, but they're so rich and textured that it's easy to forget that. Her latest, Loud City Song, which her performance largely drew from last night, is Holter's first with a host of collaborators and made in a proper studio.
Holter opened with "Maxims I," a track inspired by a nightclub scene from the 1958 musical Gigi, and it coated the Great American Music Hall with the grain and ambiance of an intimate film's slow opening shot. A single spotlight spilled across the stage onto heads in the front row. It extended to a man hunched over a glass of wine and a sketch pad at his table. The audience was cast in its own nightclub scene, though one unlike the gossipy socialites in Gigi. These denizens focused on the swaying Holter, whose voice maneuvered between hushed whispers and impassioned gusts.
Nimble strokes and dynamic sensitivity to both keys and vocals betrayed the learned musical background of Holter and her accompaniment, but the ensemble knew when to forget its training as well. The violinist, clad in red Converse and a Breeders T-shirt, bowed and plucked his instrument, creating a dissonant squeal by scraping strings with the backside of the bow at appropriate moments, too. At one point, the cellist deliberately scraped his instrument's stand. The backing musicians were tasteful players who deferred to the needs of Holter's songs. Sometimes that meant sitting one out. "Four Gardens," though, called for mesmerizing technicality that grew to a clamorous crescendo.
"Horns Surrounding Me" was one of only two songs featuring something like a backbeat. But even, then the drummer defied rock's percussive bludgeoning. For the outro, he kept time on the snare drum with his hand. The tone was quite different from the sound of mallets, sticks, or brushes on a snare (which he also used throughout the evening, sometimes gripping both at once.) On "Four Gardens," he stacked a tiny cymbal, a piece of cloth and a steel rod on top of the snare, then dismantled the pile as the song unfolded and demanded new tones. Like the rest of Holter's band, he showed learned chops and a capacity for experimentation. As well as restraint, which was the necessary sacrifice of ego that lets a pop song breathe -- even if "pop" is a largely inadequate term for this music.
Holter twists the conventions of pop song structure and abandons the usual instrumentation entirely. Furthermore, the subject matter of her songs is often lofty and intellectual. The pop quality of Holter's performance hinged on one thing: the central presence of a human voice. Breathy and hushed during the most minimal and atmospheric songs, Holter could convince each member of the audience they were privileged recipients of a personal message. Or, with staccato phrasing, she could morph into an otherworldly phantom uttering extraterrestrial propaganda. Often, Holter simply projected soaring, shimmering melodies. She threatened to drown out her band, though no one would've complained.
Gossip: As any sensible visitor should, Holter expressed her love of San Francisco and even threatened to move here. Readers are encouraged to implore Holter to follow through with the plan via all social media outlets. The current Angeleno would be a trade in our favor considering a once-San Franciscan garage rocker's recent relocation, at least in this writer's opinion.
In the Green Wild
Horns Surrounding Me
Try to Make Yourself a Work of Art
This is a True Heart
He's Running Through My Eyes