It’s a rare thing to look around a music venue and not see a dozen faces lit up with the cold blue lights of smartphones, and even rarer to hear no sound but the band. Yet, at the Cedar Cultural Center last night, Angel Olsen transported the audience to a time before technology and abbreviated attention spans. For every second of Olsen’s set, the wall-to-wall crowd stood rapt, as if even inhaling would shatter what she had created onstage.
How did the St. Louis native, a relative newcomer to the national spotlight, manage to capture the audience so thoroughly? Credit the power of an amazing voice. Olsen took the stage without any theatrics, wearing a blue Asheville Stray Dogs Softball tee and jeans, stared straight forward to the back of the room, and immediately had everyone’s attention. Starting with the song “Free” from her second album, 2012’s Half Way Home, she quickly established that her soft alt-country crooning, effortless vibrato, piercing yodels, and intense focus would rule the evening.
When Olsen launched into the hits from this year’s Burn Your Fire For No Witness, it became apparent that, while each song was rendered with the level of quality and concentration you might find in a studio, the set was an entirely different animal live. Olsen’s vocals filled the space with emotional intensity. Not a single word was lost; Olsen’s deeply-felt and poignant lyrics pierced the air during the louder tracks, like the defiant “Hi-Five,” and felt whispered in your ear during the quiet ones, like the heartbreaking “Iota.”
The exceptional band included bass player Emily Elhaj; electric guitarist Stewart Bronaugh, who deftly replicated the heavily distorted accompanying guitar; and drummer Josh Jaeger, whose hushed percussion came from what my musician friend called “the best-miked drum kit I’ve ever heard”; in addition to the soothingly fuzzy noise coming from Olsen’s own black Gibson S-1. With a sound that was perfectly restrained but still lush enough to fill the room and highlight Olsen’s vocals, the musicians very clearly worked well together. For the last few songs before the encore Olsen had the stage to herself, her singular voice and playing style standing out in stark and painful songs like “White Fire,” “Acrobat,” and guitar-only tracks from 2011’s Strange Cacti like “If It’s Alive, It Will.”
Although the openers brought a different energy—both Olsen’s tourmates Promised Land Sound, a twangy Nashville indie rock band with three harmonizing frontmen; and the Awful Truth, an indie band with folky vocals and a cello, newly-transplanted to Minneapolis and fresh with local talent—they both fit with Olsen’s aesthetic and were well-received by the crowd. (Read Andrea Swensson’s feature on the Awful Truth.) The Cedar’s usual diverse crowd bounced along to the energetic bands, but once Olsen took over nobody dared move a muscle. For the duration of the show I felt like Olsen had me locked into an emotional staring contest that I couldn’t break away from, afraid I would miss something.
After the encore—Half Way Home’s “Tiniest Seed”—had concluded, it took a while to break from the trance into which Olsen had lulled me. Her spellbinding voice and haunting vocals will probably still be ringing in my ears next until next time she comes to town.
The Awful Truth
Promised Land Sound
Luke Muyskens attends St. John’s University. He previously wrote for aboveGround Magazine and UGSMAG.