First I want to say that Angel Olsen’s set at El Rey Theatre Thursday was packed with her usual dose of charm, magnetism, and witty asides, ensuring that everyone in the audience would immediately fall in love with her. Gauging by the crowd’s reactions, which included overheard murmurings of “I just love her” or “she’s so cute,” it was obvious that she had the audience fully mesmerized by her seemingly effortless charisma.

As someone seeing this artist for about the fourth time since the release of Burn Your Fire For No Witness, however, I couldn’t help feeling mildly skeptical of her sincerity — from the daintiness of her laughs to the way she would flirt with the room by slowly raising her eyelids and smirking out of just the side of her mouth.


Then I reminded myself that this was probably Olsen’s biggest show to date, festivals aside, with a sold-out venue and an audience that took over a year to accumulate since the release of her most recent album. The girl’s been at it for a while, and I can’t blame her if she wanted to openly express her gratitude for playing a show that finally rewarded her slow, patient ascent to indie stardom.

Not that she was acting much differently than she did during her set at the small barn stage I caught her playing at during Pickathon Music Fest in Portland, OR. She still returned “I love you’s” to swooning audience members and bashfully joked, “Get out of here, you guys” with an invisible shoulder nudge to accompany it, but something about her demeanor ultimately convinced me that Olsen was genuinely having a hard time grasping the surreal reality of headlining a sold-out show at a venue that just a year before she couldn’t fill to half capacity.

And I’m happy for her. The girl deserves it because Burn Your Fire For No Witness is a beautifully crafted album that creeps into your soul and then sits there for a while, leaving you dazed for hours, days, weeks after and offering something new with every listen. It’s so nuanced, so subtle and texturized that you really need to pay attention to catch some of the most chilling moments, and watching the album performed live offers a new appreciation for her incredibly controlled, raspy vocals, which carry a range and steadiness that seriously tugs at your heart.

Kevin Morby, whom fans may know as the bassist for Woods and the frontman for The Babies, opened the show with an impressive, stoic performance. It was evocative of Bob Dylan in his younger days, with Morby’s harmonica planted around his neck and his bangs dripping sweat into his eyes as he played with unflinching commitment.

He ended his set with “Mile Miles Miles,” the first single off of his debut solo album, Harlem River, a folksy Americana jam that alternated tempos, somehow giving the illusion that he was singing in slow motion, and as an adamant fan of Morby, it was great to see him steadily drawing in more and more concertgoers from the lobby towards the stage. He’s one of those rare artists that can command a room, even with a bare-bones band that consisted of just him and his drummer.

After Kevin Morby’s sublimely affecting set, Angel Olsen took the stage in a black-sequined, bosom-boosting top and black pencil skirt that accentuated her curvy, Joan Holloway figure. It seemed as though she was channeling old-school country divas such as Dolly Parton and Loretta Lynn with her get up; she is, after all, a small-town girl from Missouri.

She had the audience hooked at “Hello” and opened on a powerful note with crowd-favorite “Free” from her 2012 album, Halfway Home. It helped to have her band backing her, allowing for the sound to carry to the back of the venue, almost drowning out the incessant chatter of inconsiderate concertgoers. She then busted into “High-Five,” easily the most instrumentally charged song in her entire set.

She solemnly strummed her electric guitar, occasionally looking up above the crowd as she sang through various tracks from Halfway Home and Burn Your Fire for No Witness. The set lost some momentum as she clustered together one too many mellow ballads, and the muffle from the back of the venue became noticeably more audible. The show picked up steam again with “Forgiven/Forgotten” and a few more intimate, bare-bones tracks that often saw Olsen on the stage alone with her guitar, singing unplugged to the audience.

Olsen tried not to let the incessant audience chatter affect her set, but it was hard to ignore from where I was standing. It bled awkwardly into her vocals and detracted from the intimacy of her last few songs, which resonate in a delicate, meditative fashion when heard on the album. Perhaps El Rey was not the ideal venue for the singer, who tends to thrive in cozier venues where you can truly marvel at her tender delivery from a closer vantage point. It would have helped a bit if her set was more varied and strategically arranged, such as if she interspersed some heavier, fuller tracks amongst the more stripped-down ones.

All things aside, Angel Olsen delivered with 100% commitment, exercising her breathtakingly dynamic vocal range through poetic lyrics over lo-fi guitar riffs. Her songs, which are often about heartbreak, loneliness, and unmet expectations, are delivered in such an engaging fashion that it’s clear she is a girl who knows how to empathize with her audience. Olsen is a true example of how pure, concentrated talent — stripped of any glitz or gimmicks — can carry a musician forward if they are willing to put forth the effort and exercise a considerable amount of patience.

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Angel Olsen