On Oct. 1, songstress Angel Olsen and Windy City pals Pillars and Tongues utterly captivated a Northampton, Mass. audience at the storied Iron Horse venue. BLURT’s contributing editor was there to bear witness.
BY JENNIFER KELLY
Two Chicago bands – one stuffed to the gills with equipment and instruments, the other spare as a twig in winter – played Northampton’s Iron Horse last week (Oct. 1). Pillars and Tongues, a trio, wove dense, drone-y layers of violin, synthesizer, bass guitar and harmonium into enveloping textures. Angel Olsen, touring in support of her recently-released Half Way Home album, sketched a stark landscape with folk guitar, minimal bass and drums and her extraordinarily expressive voice.
Pillars and Tongues is already in full swing when I arrive, the current line-up — Beth Remis, Ben Babbitt, and Mark Trecka – engaged in a heady conflation of rich string tones, mechanical beats, ruminative main vocals (Trecker) and staccato, wordless counterpoints from Remis and Babbitt. Towards the end of the song, Trecka leans over the boxy, wooden harmonium and pumps furiously at its back end. The sound that comes out, filtered through amplification and pedals, is not what you’d expect from such an antiquarian instrument. It sounds futuristic and synth-like, a gleaming, fluctuating, space-filling drone that tips Pillars and Tongues’ songs into overload.
Trecka’s voice is a big indie-rock instrument, resonant and flowery and reminiscent of 1980s alt-rock mainstays. Indeed, on the long, meandering “Bell + Rein,” he sounds like Bono or, especially, Peter Gabriel, rampaging through a murky, vaguely ethnic landscape, big pop crescendos occurring in half-lit miasmas of drone and overtone. On the record End-D, this song seems a bit shapeless, but here in performance, it sounds more fluid and organically complex. You can hear all the bits clearly – the violin, the supporting vocals, the drums, the synthesizer, the Harmonium – so that what’s muddy on disc turns multilayered in person.
After Pillars and Tongues, it takes a long time to reset – and, curiously, much of what is being done is taking away, rather than adding to. By the time it’s done, the Iron Horse’s stage is close to a bare floor, just a couple of mics, a drum set and a bass propped up against an amp. Bass player Stewart Bronaugh and drummer Joshua Jaeger come in first, then Angel Olsen enters carrying her own guitar. She is dressed in a high-necked, ankle length black dress with a cape (later she calls it her “druid dress”) and has her hair pinned up loosely, with bits coming out. There is something daguerreo-type-ish about the way she looks, yet also something very modern, which is, incidentally, true about the way she sounds as well.
Olsen starts her set with her back to the audience, playing beautiful liquid chords that splay slightly and turn, as she turns to face the audience, into “Acrobat.” Her voice starts soft and slightly blurred, then blossoms into spectral trills and finally as she sings “I am alive” gains a tremulous force. The band is beautifully minimal, a few notes of bass to mesh with her picking, a soft heart-beating drum. She follows with “Tiniest Seed,” little yelping, yodeling slides coming into her voice, the band following in hushed country waltz time. By “Always Half Strange,” her singing has become feral and raw, cutting a ragged path through the air. The notes shake and vibrate, and she seems to swallow some of them as she moans “Aa-all wa-ways in love.”
Olsen has a varied, emotionally charged voice, now soft and jazzy like Joni Mitchell, now vibrating with feeling like Connie Francis, now hiccupping and wailing like a female Charlie Feathers. She’s so powerful, when she turns up the volume, that you begin to wonder, mid-set, what she’d sound like in a punk band. Then, a couple of minutes later, she and her band oblige with the hard-rocking portion of the set with a fuzzy, VU-and-Nico-ish version of “The Sky Opened Up,” a syncopated “The Waiting” and a blistering, tambourine whacking “Sweet Dreams.”
For the last bit of the show, Olsen’s band steps down, and Olsen sings a few songs by herself, quieter, but still intense. It’s mesmerizing, even at low volume, and Olsen is a singer to watch. That said, though, she’s a little prickly as a performer, making eye contact only intermittently with the audience and talking, really, only a very little bit. She stops, abruptly, at the end, and as people clap and wonder whether there will be an encore, she starts pulling the plug out of her guitar. “I’m going out tonight,” she announces. “Where?” someone asks. “That’s a secret,” she says.
Live photos: Jennifer Kelly. Angel Olsen: Sabrina Rush. Pillars and Tongues: Sarah Derer.
Angel and P&T are on tour through this weekend. Dates at Olsen’s website.