Attending a concert solo elicits a spectrum of emotions, from self-determination to utter solitude. At the Great American Music Hall in San Francisco on Monday night, those emotions showed as the front row shuffled listlessly. Blue lights painted a somber stage, and a sorrowed voice joined in.
“Are you lonely too?” the voice crooned, with a hint of 1950s country in it. “Are you lonely too?” The question was met with a guitar chord and a defiant, knee-jerk response. “Well, high-five! So am I,” sang Angel Olsen as she tore into “Hi-Five.”
Olsen, a singer-songwriter from Chicago, is touring her most recent album, Burn Your Fire For No Witness, released several weeks ago. Monday night’s set included most of the songs from that release. It’s a record that combines americana folk with a lo-fi aesthetic, and plays like a tender-sounding Elvis Presley or an unleashed version of Joanna Newsom.
She performed with a full band, but it was clear Olsen could captivate her audience on her own merits. Her emotional calculus, created by mournful guitar, moving rhythms, and her dramatic vocal range, derived a deep, personal meaning from each of her songs. With experience as both a punk singer and background vocalist for the folk artist Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy, Olsen’s proved her great range. Her voice fluctuates dynamically between despondent whispers and graceful uproars.
The effect of this was exhibited by a gradual crescendo from delicacy to a thunderous climax in “Windows.” But the dichotomy between sorrow and angst in her music generates a dilemma: the listener can’t decide whether to jive or sulk. Solaced by a melancholic, beautiful set of aberrant folk-influenced songs, it felt good to be alone that evening.
Moments like “Unfucktheworld” were stripped down to minimal chord progressions, over which Olsen bared her most intimate confessions: “If all the trouble in my heart would only end / I lost my dream / I lost my reason once again.” With a deadpan stare, she repeated, “I am the only one now,” punctuating the statement with a sense of alienation shared by much of her material.
While the performance captured various angles of lonesomeness, she definitely wasn’t asking for sympathy. Rather, exposing her vulnerabilities supplied her strength. She commands a sense of power and independence, suggesting that she, too, is totally alright being alone.
article by Michael Roe