Angel Olsen at Whelan’s, Dublin, Friday 6th June 2014
How do you shut a Friday night crowd up? Optimistic bands have come from far and wide to Dublin venues with dreams of quiet attentive audiences only to spend subsequent years waking up in the middle of the night in cold sweats, with that inane chatter clinging to their inner ears like a particularly malignant wax.
And we’ve all seen those Angel Olsen videos. She plays quiet. So quiet that you can imagine if she were born before the advent of amplification she would still be strumming her soft and gorgeous music but instead of doing it on a stage she’d simply be playing to herself in a corner while the rest of world passed by obliviously.
Let’s get some atmosphere in first however. Cornamona native (Maria) Somerville brings her guitar onstage with her laptop in accompaniment, playing some lovely atmospherics. She navigates the typical folky style for parts of her songs, but once or twice breaks into this fantastic distortiony guitar effect.
She’s followed by Olsen’s travelling buddy Jaye Bartell who sings with a deep and well enunciated voice. The guitar he picks sounds as if it’s being played straight from a fifty year old vinyl record and these first two acts demonstrate that the sound tonight in Whelan’s is pristine. By the time Bartell finishes off his very endearing early-Cohen-inflected set, the venue is packed, and roasting.
Angel Olsen’s band is a traditional four-piece setup, a necessary touring accessory to give the music from her 2014 release ‘Burn Your Fire For No Witness’ the live treatment it deserves. While her previous album and EP experimented somewhat with production they were mostly focused on a quiet folky sound.
This new release added a dimension to Olsen that never really came through before; the loudness, which ironically allowed her to get quieter at the same time, and her gig tonight captures both of these elements of Olsen’s persona completely.
There are two parts to the gig; that with the band and that without. The first part is, overall, incredible. The band is both airy and tight, and early appearances of the punky Hi-Five and the California surf of Free give an indication of just how versatile that set-up can be when in the hands of a truly creative songwriter.
In the midst of this comes Olsen’s voice, which shifts from throaty whisper to startling warble. It’s always unexpected because she keeps an expression on her face as if she’ll never speak another word, then she approaches the microphone and out comes this penetrating yet soothing sound.
Just as unexpected is the way the band messes with force and restraint, with traditional country music bass-lines and ethereal folk guitar. This first section of the gig is truly brilliant, but Olsen’s genius is mixing this with her solo appearance at the end. When she begins finger-picking alone on Tiniest Lights the room falls into a dead prolonged silence. It gets so quiet for so long that from the front of the stage you can hear a coin dropping into the register at the bar and someone laughing out on the street.
Mesmerise is the word that gets thrown about for what Olsen does when she gets quiet, but it’s more like assimilation. She creates this intense and profound quiet so that not a whisper or cough comes from the crowd and you feel as if you are being made part of a whole and therefore being communicated to directly Olsen’s tales of loneliness and detachment.
The song segues into White Fire and if that twelve minutes of uninterrupted near-silence isn’t one of the most touching performances the Whelan’s main venue has ever seen then some people have enjoyed a very enviable experience indeed at some point in the past.
Genius is another word that gets bandied about quite a bit these days, but ‘Burn Your Fire For No Witness’ is an ingenious album. On it, Olsen shows that she understands exactly what her strengths are, thematically and musically, and she focuses on them exclusively. It’s no wonder then that she has such a quiet confidence when she performs loud. Her closing solo numbers are completely raw and exposed, vulnerable to the slightest noisy interruption.
She uses a feeling of profound loneliness – the kind that has nothing to do with how many people you keep as friends, but how well you believe you can truly communicate yourself to others – to associate with her audience. Few artists are willing to leave themselves this open, and Olsen’s willingness to do so allows an audience to do likewise, which is perhaps why she succeeds at maintaining such a quiet venue.
When she sings “Are you lonely too?/High five/So am I” she’s singing to our uncertainties and making them beautiful.
Angel Olsen Photo Gallery
Photos: Colm Kelly