On Friday night, Angel Olsen blew my expectations for her show to pieces with a shotgun. Making her L.A. debut at the Bootleg Theater, the 25-year-old singer-songwriter — who could easily be called the anti-Taylor Swift — swam effortlessly through an hour-long set of gloomy freak folk from her first two albums.
Olsen has derived much praise from her most recent effort, Half Way Home, which was released in September to glowing reviews. Prior to its release, she spent time on the road with Bonnie “Prince” Billy as an opener and touring musician, but her charming presence and weirdly detached charisma are clearly something she's nurtured on her own. The two artists do, however, share something of a mystical-sideshow quality that can only really be observed in a live setting.
To the sure delight of the aging hipster crowd, the performance started early, with the opener Matt Kivel kicking off his set at 8:30. In contrast to his other projects, Princeton and Sleeping Bags, which lean heavily toward pop and post-punk, Kivel dished out a handful of solo acoustic songs that featured his wounded charm. Though Kivel hails from Los Angeles, he maintains the humility and sincerity of a Midwestern farm boy. His songs, drawing equally on experimental and folk influences, translated incredibly well.
The small crowd, which included Bat for Lashes' Natasha Khan, filled in closer to the start of Olsen's set, who took the stage in a vintage denim skirt, with only a small practice amp behind her. The chatter soon transformed in to dead silence and pretty much stayed that way for the next hour, save for the hum of the lights and speakers. I've honestly never seen an L.A. crowd pay such rapt attention to a new artist, but it was certainly well-earned. Starting off with “Some Things Cosmic” from her debut, Olsen drew in the crowd, her haunting vocals bouncing between the rafters.
She followed with “Drunk and With Dreams,” which is at once melodically buoyant and lyrically crushing. Olsen adopted the manic disposition of the character in the song, swaying back and forth during the more upbeat parts and half-bawling in to the mic during others. As my friend hammered home after the show, there is really no one out there with a voice or style like Olsen's. She's an absolutely singular character, eschewing the comfort of traditional metaphors in her lyrics for something much more direct and visceral.
After only two songs, I noticed people turning to their friends with the “Holy Shit!” face, remarking on the exceptional qualities of her voice and demeanor. With less than 150 people in the crowd, Olsen commented on how she felt like she was playing in her living room, and the intimacy of the small show lent itself to a certain magical quality. During “Acrobat” and “Tiniest Seed,” she perfectly manipulated the space between her and the microphone, leaning away for high-pitched falsettos and back in close for a gravely baritone.
Angel Olsen is the type of artist who could win multiple Grammys and a spot on Starbucks' coveted CD display if you threw her in a multi-million dollar studio with a bunch of session hacks, but I wouldn't count on that happening. Not only does she seem content with small crowds, but her voice and presence seem to suit them. When someone from the audience asked if she had any merch for sale, she replied by saying, “I don't have anything for sale. This is what you got. Existence.” And then, adding her initials to the 2012 acronym of the year, added: “A.O.Y.O.L.O “
The Crowd: Mostly bloggers and musicians.
Personal Bias: Judging from her lyrics, I feel I might be the male version of Angel Olsen.
Random Notebook Dump: Is she eyeball-fucking the whole crowd, or just someone in particular?