I can’t help feeling that tonight was one of those nights where nearly everything went wrong. I’m going to do my best not to let that colour my experience seeing Angel Olsen at Lincoln Hall tonight, but the fact of the matter is that this was one of those nights I wouldn’t have minded staying in and doing not much of anything. First of all Lincoln Hall was completely oversold tonight and more packed than I have ever seen it before (the previous holder of that title was Stars of the Lid in December). The bouncers even gave up on keeping the stairways clear—they settled on keeping one side of each stairway clear instead. It was so packed in there I had my first moment of legit claustrophobic panic in my life—during ‘White Fire’ the woman in front of me kept backing up into me and I was already cornered by a column and the ramp and railing on the left side of the room. I started to see stars, had trouble breathing and spent the entire song worried I might pass out. There were a lot of barriers to my enjoyment of the show—which happens sometimes when you go out in a giant crowd of people. Sometimes the rabble of nitwits you’re stuck in a space with can make it real hard to get your purpose accomplished, even if that purpose is something as simple as taking in some live music.
The opening band was deliberately chosen as a statement of intent it seemed—Promised Land Sound from Nashville, Tennessee did a great job of playing some very well-tread-territory type of music. There were flashes of the passion that Neil Young’s best songs exude, but they were only flashes. The lead guitarist did some impressive wah-wah work and had a lively, fresh approach. Everything else sounded rather generic. The only exceptions were when the band slowed things down and played something yearning and beautiful—again, a forecast for what was the follow.
Much has been made about the heavier, more rock-based sound of ‘Burn Your Fire for No Witness,’ which Olsen made with a full band. Where her previous work dabbles in country and Patsy Cline-esque 60s pop as well as some beautiful, plaintive starkness, ‘Burn Your Fire for No Witness’ features the sludgy pop rock of ‘Forgiven/Forgotten’ and ‘Hi-Five.’ Wearing a baseball cap that covered her face and chugging down beers for most of the set, Olsen was standing behind the more rocking material, but it was always the emotionally arresting beauty of songs that she performed from 2012’s ‘Halfway Home’ and 2010’s stark ‘Strange Cacti’ that held the crowd’s attention. Basically, it was the opposite of every other show I’ve ever been to—at this show people were heading to the bar to get another beer during the louder songs and everyone sat at rapt attention during the quiet songs. Considering what an anomaly this is I begin to struggle with the necessity of the rockier material—her best-written songs on the new album are the more emotionally bare pieces like the solo ‘White Fire’ and the cathartic closer ‘Windows’—those two tracks were the clear standouts of the evening from the new record. The band she’s assembled is nice and heavy and the songs sound fully fleshed-out and vivid (props to her for taking Implodes bassist Emily Elhaj along on this tour), it’s just that those tracks seem a little forced to me. Olsen is in her element most when she’s commanding a crowd on her own, which was true the first time I saw her at the Empty Bottle back in 2010—she’s one of the only performers I’ve seen bring the din of conversation at the Bottle to a deafening silence by playing ‘Some Things Cosmic’ by herself (which she ended with tonight as well). The full-band versions of older songs like ‘Free,’ ‘Miranda’ and ‘Drunk and With Dreams’ were magnificent as well. While I say that the more rocking songs on ‘Burn Your Fire…’ seem forced, it’s at least nice to hear that Olsen has a strong desire to push her sound in a different direction. One thing that ‘Burn Your Fire…’ has that her older records don’t is her fullest and richest-sounding vocals to date.