A young woman named Angel Olsen took to the stage at the Bootleg Theater on Friday night with a guitar and a microphone. She played songs off her mini-album, Strange Cacti, and her debut album proper, Half Way Home. She performed for an hour without a backing band, in front of somewhere between 100 and 200 people. After her final song, she left and did not play an encore.
At face value, that sounds like a pretty ordinary gig and certainly not one to write home about. In LA on any given night, you can go into a place that serves good coffee, and it’ll likely have at least one female singer-songwriter playing guitar from behind a microphone. Most of them will have played LA venues on more occasions than Angel Olsen, as this was the first LA show for the solo artist, and I’m willing to bet good money that none of them held a small crowd in hear-a-pin-drop silence in the way that Olsen did. For such an enigmatic performer, the tools of her power are actually pretty straightforward. Apparently all you need are huge doses of unteachable charisma, songs that overflow with soulful resonance, and a voice of extraordinary versatility that seems to be generated with minimal effort and absolute control. Simple really.
Like many others, I am a newcomer to Olsen’s charms. I was made aware of Half Way Home far too late in the year to include it in my “Best of” list, but this fairly bare bones collection of songs stands up to anything else released in 2012. Her stage presence fleshed out these songs even without the instrumentation from the album, and from the opening couple of tracks — both songs off her earlier Strange Cacti release — she assumed a rather stoic stance that was in contrast to the open-hearted nature of the lyrics. It often felt as if she were performing these songs for the first time, as she gave herself space and time to reflect on each word and react accordingly. Thus we saw flashes of emotion rather than naked displays. There was simply the odd wry smile, the occasional glance into the distance, but never the complete abandonment of whatever veil she holds between herself and the audience.
Not that there was any sense of aloofness in her manner. In between songs, she sounded relaxed, having a laugh at the expense of LA’s perception of January weather and how locals have no idea what being cold really means, and regaling us with stories of Chicago libraries boasting piano practice rooms that smelled like piss. As soon as the guitar started up, though, Olsen the Artist came back into focus and that voice kicked in again. That voice being an instrument of wonder. In one breath she can sing “On my way to California, and I don’t mean California literally” and sound like a laid-back Joni Mitchell. In the next breath — as in that breathtaking leap she makes in the chorus of “Acrobat,” exclaiming “I am alive!” with an ecstatic vibrato — she can sound otherworldly, causing you to wonder, “Where on Earth did that come from?” It is a rare artist indeed that can infuse a venue with such a sense of stillness and concentration, but Angel Olsen is undoubtedly that rare artist.
She reminded me most of the Texan singer Josh T. Pearson. I have had the pleasure of seeing both artists in the last couple of years, and they each combine a kind of meandering ethereality with an intense focus. They also share an ability to sing entirely from the heart with an intimacy that borders on uncomfortable, such is its vividness. Neither of the two have had the kind of acclaim they deserve, but Angel Olsen has time on her side, and mesmerizing performances like the one she gave at the Bootleg Friday night are going to get people talking about her. Not many artists can stand on their own on a stage and knock a room full of people on their asses, but Angel Olsen is one of the few.
For more info: