Wednesday 13 November 2013

Julia Holter at Village Underground - 11 November 2013

Julia Holter

It's a filthy night.

I pull my cap down over my eyes to protect my glasses from the pelting rain. I'm stood in a queue in Shoreditch waiting for the doors of Village Underground to open.

Once inside it is clear that one of the more bizarre laws of gig-going has come into play. This states that if there is a queue down the street outside a small venue, once you are inside the place appears to be largely empty. The late-lamented Metro in Oxford Street used to be the prime example of this phenomenon - that place could absorb punters like a black hole sucks in light.

I really like Village Underground. The vast brick vault that towers over the stage gives a cathedral-like majesty to events below. It makes every performance seem important and special.

The first act is a woman armed with a guitar and a series of loop devices. After Martina Topley-Bird last time out, this is clearly becoming a trend.

Lucrecia Dalt moves around in semi darkness, setting up a series of rhythms over which she chops with her guitar, stepping up to one of a number of microphones to coo indistinctly.

It's okay, but for me there is a slight problem in that all these pieces seem like introductions to something bigger that never arrives. They never go anywhere and even stop dead when it appears that they might. Interesting rather than essential.

This is my first live experience of Julia Holter. She grabs attention right from the start and doesn't relinquish it until she and her band leave an hour or so later.

Holter stands behind a keyboard. She is flanked by musicians playing saxophone, violin, cello and drums. It's not a common set up. But then, Holter is not a common performer.

The music played this evening is very hard to categorise in usual musical terms. I could give a great long list of references and comparisons, but these would only apply to brief moments within these very complicated but beautiful song structures. I would say that this is closest to modern jazz or contemporary classical music, but my ignorance of these genres is so complete that this is not a helpful description.

Julia Holter is an engaging presence. She's utterly relaxed and is happy to chat to the crowd. She declares herself fascinated by the 'trapezoid' shape of the room and is clearly bemused at having to play whilst being dive-bombed by a succession of flying insects attracted by the stage lights. "There's something very large on my keyboard…" she notes.

Holter's voice is a high and pure wonder of clarity, very well served by the excellent acoustics.

The set begins with the underwater wooziness of 'Maxims I' and proceeds from there, drawing heavily on her most recent album 'Lost City Songs'.

These tunes are varied and spellbinding. Sometimes the sax squalls in freeform anguish. Sometimes the violin churns like a guitar. Everything is intricately structured - there is very little improvisation here.

A cover of Barbara Lewis ' "Hello Stranger" is one of many highlights. The song is stretched and dissected until it bears only the ghost of a resemblance to the original.

For a encore, the band return to play a version of 'Goddess Eyes', a track that Holter has explored several times across her albums.

I'm totally smitten. I'm not often lost for words, but I'm deliberately holding back the gush of superlatives here. If I start, I'll be here all day.

So it's simple. Go and see Julia Holter live. She's quite unique. 

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