Live Review, 2/24/12: Jolie Holland Channels a Haunting Past at the Swedish
Better than: Every show I've been to in the last 12 months.
Among those who work there, it's common knowledge that the Swedish American Hall is haunted. This is according to violinist Carey Lamprecht, who played there on Friday night with headliner Jolie Holland and opener Emily Jane White. Haunted or not, the Swedish was the best setting for Friday's four-hour Noise Pop show, featuring four performers (White, DRMS, Will Sprott, and Holland) whose differences in style are bound by a deeply personal approach to musical storytelling. Each finds ways to grab ahold of the smallest, rarest bits of emotional experience and craft lasting songs out of these fleeting moments.
Lamprecht told the audience about the hall being haunted apropos of the book she and Holland are collaborating on: a collection of true ghost stories, first-person accounts that Holland has been amassing for seventeen years. This sideline could not be more fitting for Holland, whose work embraces so many of the more spectral and mysterious aspects of American musical history. If you want, you can hear in many of her songs an encyclopedic re-organization of the American musical canon (and any number of sub-canons), echoing with rhythms, instrumentation, and ideas from across the centuries. On Friday, Holland mentioned Townes van Zandt, Boots Riley, Ray Davies, and two Native American performers among her influences; haunted as she is by musicians past and present, major and minor, it's no surprise that a ghost story anthology is in her future.
Holland and Lamprecht were joined by Keith Cary on lap steel, mandolin, and violin for a set that was mournful, witty, and especially infused with the feeling that Holland specializes in: regret. She performed originals primarily from her most recent album, Pint of Blood, as well as songs by van Zandt and others.
Each song was driven by the central instrument of the ensemble: Holland's voice. The complex harmonics of her voice find hidden places in melodies and lyrics, which is one of Holland's hallmarks as a performer. Her lyrics evoke threadbare emotion and often describe characters trapped in the grip of their own histories; many of them could have been inspired by the famous last line of The Great Gatsby: "So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past."
Her performance alternated among more intense, tranced-out instrumental passages that brought Lamprecht and Cary to the forefront of the group, her own spirit-channeling vocals, and chatty inter-song stories about other musicians and (of course) ghosts.
Emily Jane White (c) and band
Emily Jane White opened with a short set of her own -- an evocative group of songs characterized by the strong, moody arrangement of her own, dark Brontë -ish lyrics and voice with electric guitar and bass clarinet.
The biggest surprise of the evening was the newly-formed DRMS, a seven-piece band formed around vocalist Emily Ritz (of Honeycomb and Yesway) and featuring vibes and a parade's-worth of inventive percussion. Their sound was a dynamic tidal wave that hit the room with one of those revelatory "What are we hearing?" moments of genuine surprise. Ritz's agile, feline, Holiday-inflected vocals drove each song. The display of musicianship by the band was peerless. Brazilian jazz and pure rock experimentation worked side by side, but the result was something that sounded very new. At one point in the final number, Ritz hefted a donkey jaw (bones and teeth) from the floor next to her mike and started banging the hell out of it with one hand. As Will Sprott noted in his own set, there was something arresting about a well-dressed woman with a lovely voice doing what it takes to get good sound out of a jawbone.
DRMS, fronted by Emily Ritz (c)
Sprott's set started out solo, but he was shortly joined by Andrew Maguire (from DRMS) on vibes, as well as by three backup singers. Sprott's quiet, well-crafted tunes had some of the earnest flavor of '50s love songs, but his are far better written and arranged. The backup singers' main job was to perform carefully-modulated "ooo"s -- they were meltingly sweet, really. I entirely surrendered to their undisguised sentiment -- and to the show as a whole.
The perfect venue: The communal warmth of the Swedish American Hall's open floorplan and hand-tooled woodwork set exactly the right mood for the intimate kind of performer-to-audience communication preferred by these musicians and their fans.
In praise of onstage drinking: Holland often brings a bottle of wine onstage with her, which increases my respect for her exponentially. After two or three songs, her plastic cup was felled during an instrument change and she (as well as Cary and Lamprecht) swigged straight from the bottle -- which is as it should be.