Olsen's chilling voice cut through a sell-out crowd at Republic Saturday night in a misplaced but mesmerising set.
Angel Olsen’s voice is a force of nature. It’s pained and soothing, soulful and ethereal all at once, a shock to the system of any listener with two functioning eardrums and a beating heart. Her lyrics feel deeply personal, often addressing a past love or an unrequited interest directly in the second person, and when her voice floats out of a pair of speakers (or better yet, headphones), she’s speaking directly to you.
Her stage presence is almost as enthralling. Olsen stands behind the microphone, still but more relaxed than rigid. Her vulnerability seems to emanate from a place of confidence, and her commentary, however sparse, is witty and eloquent, accompanied by a wry smile as if she's letting you in on a private joke. When she came to One Eyed Jacks in October, 2014 on tour for her second studio album, Burn Your Fire for No Witness, she alternated her gaze between members of the audience, staring straight past their eyes into their souls. That kind of connection was harder for her to achieve Saturday at a sold-out Republic, with a crowd that spilled into every dark corner of the venue and up the stairs onto the balcony generally reserved for VIP.
Sell-out crowds can be a lot of fun. In early October of last year, Rae Sremmurd and Lil Yachty packed Republic from wall to wall, and the situation quickly devolved into an ecstatic mosh pit. On Saturday, Olsen wasn't mosh pit fare, and her slow-burning sound felt misplaced alongside the condensed, simmering energy of a thousand warm bodies.
Still, neither Olsen nor her band missed a beat. From the first chords of the ironically upbeat opener “Never Be Mine” to the final notes of the encore, the audience was with them all the way, swaying and singing along but rarely so passionately that it seriously interfered with the mix. The band seemed to address the crowd by stepping out of their comfort zone (or the zone Olsen usually occupies) and played loudly, occasionally throwing in extra guitar solos. Its energy helped to ease the dissonance between the intimacy of the music and the density of the crowd.
During their 16-song set, the band played nine of the ten songs from Olsen's latest album, My Woman. It’s just as introspective as Burn Your Fire for No Witness, but the tempos are faster and the volume's turned up a bit. Alongside Olsen, who played guitar for most of the show, there were two additional guitarists (a lead and a rhythm), a bassist, a drummer, and a synth/keyboard player. They gelled together, swelling easily from quiet accompaniment to pulsing jams when the music called for it.
The entire band wore androgynous gray suits with bolo or pencil ties except for Olsen, who wore platform shoes, a red skirt, and a striped button-down. She stood out clearly from the rest, but not in a showy or excessive way. Her guitar-playing was thoughtful and spare, accentuating the rest of the instrumentation. She rarely took the lead melody and never soloed, but she also was more than just an accessory in her arrangements.
Olsen's voice was an entirely different story. Towering above the rest of the mix, it was the obvious star and rightfully so. The setting made it impossible for her lyrics to resonate the same way they do in a quiet room, so the show’s best moments were those when the lyrics were rendered irrelevant by the sheer vocal power she put behind them.
She played “Shut Up Kiss Me,” the easiest singalong of the night, but the lyrics of the hook (“Shut up, kiss me, hold me tight”) felt less important than the urgency with which she repeated them. Similarly, the cathartic message conveyed by the refrain “I’ll let the light shine in” on “Not Gonna Kill You” felt secondary to the masterful way that Olsen's voice subtly crescendoed alongside the band into a frantic instrumental climax.
The band closed out the set with “Give It Up,” but Olsen was back onstage momentarily for an encore. With only a synth backing her up, she launched into a haunting extended version of “Intern,” My Woman’s opening track. As if by divine intervention, the crowd immediately fell into near silence and, for the first time, sat back and let the music wash over them. It was the undeniable high point of the night, especially when the lyrics broke down into a chilling, melismatic moan that sent shivers down Republic’s collective spine.
She followed “Intern” with an equally beautiful rendition of “Woman”, and then puzzlingly chose to bring the band back on for a somewhat underwhelming cover of “Total Control” by the early '80s rock band The Motels, which didn't connect with nearly the same impact.
False endings aside, Olsen and her band were able to power through the situation and emerge victorious.