Angel Olsen at Studio 34, Philadelphia, PA, November 13, 2012,
Nov 20, 2012
On Tuesday night in Philadelphia, Folkadelphia, the online radio show of local station WXPN, arranged an intimate acoustic show at West Philly's Studio 34 yoga/healing/arts center. The show featured newcomer Brendan Codey, Philadelphia folk institution Meg Baird, and headliner Angel Olsen.
Once one got past the somewhat unusual fact that the show was being held in a yoga loft, it didn't take long to enjoy what was a comfortable yet decidedly hip(ster) vibe. The crowd, clad in such garb as cable knit sweaters and gloves, and with high per capita beard growth, enjoyed themselves in community, sitting on couches and pillows on the floor, eating free pumpkin bread, drinking tea with friends, and perusing free newspapers about the state of Philadelphia's public education system.
Codey and his four-piece band opened the show with a brief set of strange Americana with an eccentric, almost Mark Linkous-esque twist and multi-faceted sonic palette that belied the rather typical soundscapes of his recorded work. Codey ended his set with a rousing and, despite his sentiments, perfectly favorable cover of Bob Dylan's "I Shall Be Released."
Concertgoers waited on baited breath for Baird, whose largely solo set was met with rapt attention. One could hear a pin drop (or tea brew), as her voice, an echo of folk legends like Joni Mitchell and Vashti Bunyan, carried pitch perfect melodies both gentle and powerful. Occasionally featuring her sister Laura on banjo and harmonies, Baird's set was a thrill. Before the final song of her night, Baird said that she was suffering from a cold, but had she not mentioned it, not a soul in the room would have known.
The headliner, Chicago songwriter Angel Olsen, came to the stage for her brief 35-minute set later than expected at about 10:45 PM. The audience of approximately 60 was largely enrapt as Olsen's voice, an affectively powerful yet often controlled and subtle instrument, harkened to jazz greats Billie Holiday and Nina Simone. Olsen split her set between songs from her two albums, Strange Cacti (originally released on cassette in 2010 and reissued on vinyl in 2011) and this year's Half Way Home. Standing on the stage alone with her electric guitar lightly strummed and her voice perfectly engaging, Olsen seemed shy and possibly self-conscious in a room that was held in utter silence throughout. There is a sense, watching Olsen play to rooms such as this one, that one is witnessing a certain untapped greatness, something like how it must have been watching Jeff Buckley playing live at Sin-é in the early '90s.
There was no excess to Olsen's set. There was no stage banter, no conversation with the crowed huddled at her feet. In fact, she spoke nary an extra word before disappearing into the back room of the yoga loft at the conclusion of her set.
Baird and Codey milled around, talking with the crowd, selling merchandise, and mingling for another 30 minutes or so after the conclusion of the show. But Olsen did not resurface. It was as if she had given enough of herself in her performance, a mysterious figure personified only in her song, like one imagines all those old jazz greats her voice evokes.
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