In some ways, Agnes Obel looks like a proper modern pop star, and over in Europe she has the sales to back that claim up. Her debut album went five times platinum in her home country of Denmark, and she has encountered success all over the continent, regularly charting highly and playing packed large theatres. On top of that, there is the obvious fact that she possesses the kind of delicate photogenic features you are likely to find on the cover of fashion magazines.
On the other hand, Obel is about as far from the Miley Cyruses of the world as it’s possible to get. A classically trained pianist with a wispy but quietly strong singing voice, she is the real deal as a musician. Her debut album, Philharmonics, was written and recorded entirely by Obel alone, and while her fame has grown considerably since then (up to and including her follow-up, Aventine), her set-up has not. Obel took to the stage in the incongruous setting of The Roxy Theatre on the Sunset Strip with just a cellist and violinist to accompany her, and with little fuss, she set about seducing her crowd.
The music itself (to which I admit to being a newbie) is completely deceptive. On the one hand, it is made up of the kind of simple, unobtrusive melodies that you can imagine cooking to on a Sunday afternoon. On closer examination, it reveals itself as moody, subtly complex, and compelling. For just over an hour, The Roxy was almost completely silenced by music that makes as much use of space and silence as it does of swelling climaxes and gentle harmonies. It might be the quietest show I’ve ever attended.
The main strength of Obel’s music is also the thing that could stop her from being a bigger star in the US. By showing restraint and avoiding attention-grabbing moves, she can entrance a small audience like that at The Roxy, but I did wonder how this would go over at SXSW (which she was due to attend after the show). This set was an exercise in minimalism; there was no flamboyance in the lighting set-up or in the performance, and visually one had to make do with a young lady in fierce concentration at her piano.
Not that the performance lacked warmth. As a host, Obel was charming, dealing with sound issues with a healthy dose of humor, and she exhibited genuine gratitude at the patience and respect shown by the crowd. Her skeletal arrangements warrant and reward repeat visits and make for a particularly intimate show. On this occasion, the venue worked immensely in her favor, and if Agnes Obel does not end up bothering the upper reaches of the US charts, then her fans (amongst which I now count myself) will be perfectly happy to keep her as their own.
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