Angel Olsen - Manchester Gorilla

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Halfway through this uniquely disquieting performance, a show that, you suspect, as a result of its upgrade from the dainty Deaf Institute to the concrete edifice that is Gorilla, had its rug pulled before the band even set foot in the country, some fuckwit does his damn level best to stifle an already starchy atmosphere: "We've got a bus to catch – play 'Unfuck the World'!" There are murmurs and shuffling until someone takes up the matter on behalf of a visibly unsettled Angel Olsen. "Well, why don't you fuck off, then?" Cheers, and then Olsen rouses herself. "You've got to get a bus?" she says. "Guess where I've got to be tomorrow? I've got to get in the fucking car tonight and the next night and then the next - we've all got fucking buses and cars to get." There are more cheers, and Olsen returns to tuning her guitar, head bowed, seemingly troubled and wondering, you imagine, just what she's doing trying to play her songs to a crowd that doesn't care to show her the respect she's trying to show them.

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Not your average back-slapping, lighter-raising yee-haw love-in they talked about in the live show rulebook, then. And it's a crying shame that, with Olsen half an hour late to the stage, some of this capacity crowd have to miss the latter (and best) part of the show. It's sadder still that it takes a loudmouth lad gobbing off at a young female musician to add frisson to a show that, up to that point, wasn't quite on fire. It's likely Olsen and her band would have naturally performed a second half gear shift anyway. Either way, the first half hour is precise and stately. Compelling for sure but the room is oddly airless, the applause warm but polite; Olsen quiet, almost withdrawn, occasionaly staring unblinking out into the crowd or simply focussing on a point some way beyond the rear of the hall.

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A stinging 'Forgiven/Forgotten' lifts the evening in an instant. Perhaps it's the front-loading of the set with songs from 2013's Halfway Home that leads to a jittery start. Every song begins as a whisper. 'Acrobat', that tender, sweeping hymnal is teased out and lifted, Olsen's three piece backing band attentive and measured. They contribute much tonight: barely acknowledging each other, they find space within the songs and slink around them. 'High and Wild' begins slow and woozy before tearing free. 'Stars' is incendiary, and there's an unbearably tender reading of 'Lights Out', Stewart Bronaugh's guitar alight on that bittersweet coda. It’s this more recent material - the swarthy grunge of 2014's excellent Burn Your Fire For No Witness - that really connects, transports. Electrified, Olsen electrifies. An uncannily sharp take on Fleetwood Mac's 'Dreams' is unexpected but a dark joy; the Missouri gal making a beeline for the bucket of heartache beneath the California dreamin'.

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Despite ornamenting the set with a sure-fire, sweet treat cover, Olsen's game-plan is to play it decidedly unsafe. So easy to throw in a keyboard player or strings to beef up the mix and warm it to industry standard but no, her live sound is brittle and sparse. Her voice, in turn, is uncommonly treble-y, reminiscent of a young Kristin Hersh, with its 'yelp' and its wobbly vibrato. Tonight, she sings so beautifully, it hurts (so good). She's circumspect onstage, though: the two or three smiles she eventually shares feel like hard-won rewards. The crowd might be respectful rather than impassioned but they do stick with her throughout. It's like they need to know that, beneath that impassive exterior, she's engaged and with them. You never quite know - a thrill in itself, almost. Olsen is a magnetic and yet frictional presence, reluctant (tonight, at least) to share anecdotes from the tour bus or proffer hokey impressions of the locals. The drama that results, it makes for a hair-raising experience but the fringe benefits (maybe that's why she cuts it so blunt and so high - all the better to see us with) are undeniable.

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Photos by Alex Bell

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