Tuesday 22 July 2014

Julia Holter at St John-at-Hackney - 21 July 2014

Julia Holter

It’s a warm summer’s night. There are plenty of people lounging around the church yard of St John at Hackney and a few souls are already inside bagging decent positions amongst the rows of chairs.

Eventually a woman wanders onto stage and starts generating electronic noises that echo the sounds of a mighty church organ, the tones drifting and droning and rising and falling and ringing and turning back on themselves. It’s hypnotic.

It goes on far too long. This is Karen Gwyer and in this case a good idea goes rather a long way. Her sounds and drones are entirely appropriate to this setting but drawn out over an extended period it is like listening to a comedy routine with an endlessly repeated punchline. OK, we get it.

Gwyer eventually gives way to Ocitrop, a trio of young men who nurdle away contently for an hour while a dancer ‘interprets’ their sound through the medium of moving slowly across the stage and teetering a bit.

The sounds are part sampled, part played and once more they evoke an atmosphere of hush and reverence. There are clicks and bangs, as if of the seats of folding chairs flying up and these harsh clacks eventually transform into something not unlike a rural soundscape.

I like them quite a bit, although I find myself looking at my watch after they continue for a good fifteen minutes after they had appeared to reach a natural and satisfying conclusion.

By now it is becoming clear that we are in for a late finish and that the headliner is going to be squeezed for time. This is just poor planning – there’s been one too many supports.

Eventually, finally, Julia Holter and her band take the floor. Holter quickly advises us that this is the last night of a long tour and the last time this particular group will play together. What follows is both spectacularly wonderful, yet almost rushed and perfunctory. The set list is so cobbled together that Holter and the band can barely keep track of it. It doesn't matter.

Julia Holter occupies a sonic space unlike any other performer. Her music is elusive and hard to describe. It’s genuinely timeless, her crystal pure voice offset by the atonal scrapes of violin or wailing honks of saxophone.

Is it jazz? Kinda. Is it the woozy swirl of a thirties orchestra doing the soundtrack for a melodrama about white slavery and opiates? Quite possibly. But probably not.

Holter enthuses about the church and certainly the acoustics suit her down to the ground, her voice ringing round the walls until it totally surrounds you.

My personal highlight is ‘Maxims 1’ which sounds like Rhapsody in Blue played underwater, being both beautiful and strange and distant.

In a scant hour, she is gone, leaving a room stunned into appreciative silence. There is then an eruption of furious applause and a dash for the trains.

Julia Holter made the evening special. The organisers may wish to check their watches when working out stage timings.


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