The first time I saw Angel Olsen perform live was less than a year ago, in my hometown of Jacksonville, Florida. She played an early December gig at Jackrabbits, a very small music venue situated close to the heart of downtown, close enough to hear the rumbling of passing trains but too far to bask in the eerie silence of the metropolitan area. I suppose it’s only fitting that I had the chance to see her at Mercy Lounge on my first outing as a local music journalist, a venue situated right on the tracks and a stone’s throw away from the constantly vibrant Broadway.
I noticed a few differences between these experiences almost immediately upon my arrival. The major one was the amount of onlookers flooding the floors of what has quickly become one of my favorite venues of town, especially in comparison to the barely double digits that joined me for her Jacksonville date. 2014 has been good to Angel Olsen, the release of her brilliant sophomore effort Burn Your Fire For No Witness having afforded her well-deserved critical acclaim and something of a cult following. The other noticeable change here was that she was now touring with a three-piece band as opposed to just herself, a sonic shift that would pay dividends as the performance started to gain traction.
Supporting musicians aside, the highlight of an Angel Olsen concert will always be her hypnotizing voice. I’m convinced, sincerely, that there’s nothing else like it out there. Olsen’s vocals toe the line between being heavily indebted to legendary female Americana balladeers enough for traditionalists to cry foul, to pushing the envelope of what might be considered an attractive voice enough for contemporaries to wish she wasn’t unintentionally infiltrating their area with such great success.
While it would seem fitting that a Nashville crowd would be fervently receptive to such an enigmatic figure, the tenants of Mercy Lounge seemed to only tune into the songs she played off of this most recent album, giving rapturous receptions to a catchy ditty like “Hi Five” while largely ignoring an opening song like “Free”, taken from her excellent 2012 debut Half Way Home. In fact, the response to earlier cuts led Olsen to assure the laconic crowd that Mercy Lounge did in fact serve alcohol, dryly reassuring everyone after two songs that they would be on stage for “about thirty-six more minutes.”
All of this happened before the massive turning point of the show, a performance of what might be considered the “hit single” from Half Way Home, the transcendent opening track “Acrobat.” Whereas the album version never raises itself above a whisper, Olsen and her backing band took the song into shoe gaze territory, noodling around on their respective instruments before gradually throwing in bits of distortion to the mix. I can’t even accurately explain what happened throughout this song, as I honestly believe that everyone in the room soon found themselves in a trance as the band lifted the song into proggy heights, jamming away for several minutes as if they were playing to a massively stoned crowd at Bonnaroo as opposed to a slightly drunk one near downtown Nashville. This was a major moment of the night, Olsen herself claiming to have accidentally been swept up in the composition.
In addition to that detour into peculiar sounds, Olsen’s set found her and the band playfully reworking the classic Nashville sound into something slightly scuzzier, adding Southern rock guitars and even allowing a slightly grungy influence to manifest in front of a newly invigorated crowd. This was, naturally, before the familiar opening riffs of Fleetwood Mac’s “Dreams” found themselves being played over the excellent sound system at Mercy Lounge. From what I can tell, this is not a cover that Olsen pulls out often, but I’ll be damned if it didn’t fit her repertoire perfectly.
The final song of the set was introduced as being about “not getting what you want,” our increasingly sarcastic auteur of the night launching into excellent Burn Your Fire For No Witness track “Iota”, a song which finds its protagonist dancing “in perfect rhythm to the perfect song.” While the Mercy Lounge crowd might not have been willing to provide that perfect rhythm for much of the night, Angel Olsen proved herself more than willing to offer up that perfect song.
– Kevin B.