Julia Holter feels big right now. The buzz around this tour is such that this gig sold out weeks ago and as a result there is a small pack of hopeful Bristolians lingering outside the venue in anticipation, the pleading look of Dickensian orphans in their eyes as they ask the passing punters if they have any tickets going spare. But the Cube is not only one of Bristol’s smallest venues, it is also one of its best, and tonight promises to be a little bit special, so there’s not much hope of anyone giving up their hard-earned admission.
The evening’s support comes from Colombia-born Lucrecia Dalt, whose modernist loops and dream-pop vocals are given a grungy edge by a coolly aggressive bass guitar. There is something captivating about a solo performer with a bass guitar – the instrument’s physical length and poise mean it resembles a single outstretched wing, at once impressive and melancholy, and Dalt’s own stillness in the centre of her waves of sound reflects this.
Holter and her band are drawing to the end of a massive tour so they could be forgiven for dragging their feet a bit, but their sprightliness is tangible from the start and, if anything, increases as the evening progresses. Opening up with the oddball In The Green Wild, Holter hams up the song’s jazzy Joni Mitchell-isms to great effect. Maxim’s I alternates staccato whispers with swathes of keyboard and crooning claustrophobia, and Horns Surrounding Me continues the broadly existential lyrical theme while beefing up the vocals. Each of these first three songs comes from the recent album, Loud City Song, the success of which is the reason for the popularity of tonight’s gig.
Also impressive are the songs from last year’s LP Ekstasis. The violin and sax accompaniment give an appealing skittishness to the expanse Four Gardens, while Marienbad becomes a musical onslaught that fits perfectly with Holter’s voice – live, she is more impassioned than you might expect, and her band meet this passion head on.
These songs are not ‘pop’ in the strictest sense – that is, they rarely conform to regular structures. But neither are they difficult to listen to. On record they create an internal dialogue between the narrator and her city streets, and on stage this dialogue becomes even clearer. Before seeing her live, it is possible to form the opinion that Holter‘s main talent lies in arranging and composing electronically – and with icy precision – vignettes that owe as much to classical or modernist techniques as they do to pop. But one reason these tracks have such lasting appeal is the emotional hit they carry, reinforced by Holter’s ear for a melody. Live, we see her come to the fore as a fine songwriter and performer. Her spirited playing has elements of Kate Bush as well as Joni. Even her facial expressions mark her out as an unexpectedly warm frontwoman as she scowls and grins and flaps at her keys, eggs her band on into more flamboyant improvisations, and physically occupies the world created by each song.
Although she omits to play such potentially crowd-pleasing tracks as World from the latest album and older favourites like Goddess Eyes this still feels like a set packed full of highlights – a mere three albums in and Holter already has a grand array of possibilities to choose from, already has the option to vary her set, to include surprises (or surprise by omission). It’s a good place to be, and a sign that she knows how to keep the creative spark going once she has captured it.
Tonight, things come to a sonic peak with the brilliant Maxim’s II, a hornier and more violent version of the second song of the night, in which dissonant sax and violin erupt and Holter’s impish grin stretches wider than ever as the strings behind her reach bursting point. It is probably the last time she will play a venue this small, and she is making the most of it.
Review by: Thomas Blake
Julia Holter Live on KEXP
Loud City Song released 19 Aug 2013 via Domino Records
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