Author: Riley Urbano
Photo by Riley Urbano
Honestly, I didn’t know what to expect going into this show. Julia Holter is somewhat of a niche act, my friends don’t really know her or show much interest in the kind of music she makes, and she’s touring the world off the heels of a famously difficult new record, 2018’s Aviary. But I’m glad to report that within the first moments of Holter’s set, I knew this was one of the best live shows I’d seen in a long time, and things only improved from there.
The opening act, Tess Roby, was pretty good. Tess herself was on stage manning a keyboard and what looked/sounded like a drum machine, with her brother on guitar duty. The two of them seemed to be working some kind of mid-tempo wedge between R&B and dream pop, with a lot more bass than you usually get from either genre. Tess sang from her chest, with a deep voice that kind of reminded me of Weyes Blood, and her brother’s guitar work vacillated between shoegaze-y textural work and echo-soaked arpeggios. The overall vibe was a little muted, but it was still enjoyable enough and definitely set the tone for the evening well.
So, Tess Roby finishes a tight thirty-minute set, graciously thanks the audience, dips out. The ambient hum of the audience’s chatter fills the air, the lights come up, and I mentally prepare for a show that might not demand too much attention, given how gossamer the opening act was. But then, pretty suddenly, with no fanfare whatsoever, the lights turn blood red and out steps Julia Holter, alone, who starts in on a legitimately arresting performance of Aviary’s “In Garden’s Muteness;” the crowd literally went dead silent. Given the red velvet curtain, dramatic lighting, and chevron pattern on Julia’s jacket, the most immediate referent was the roadhouse from Lynch’s Twin Peaks. But as the melodrama of Holter’s songwriting became increasingly pitched, the vibe shifted more towards Rebekah Del Rio singing in Club Silencio, a powerful image from Lynch’s other masterpiece, Mulholland Drive. The addition of jazzy muted-trumpet licks on cuts like “Voce Simul” and “Betsy on the Roof” only heightened the Lynchian atmosphere of the evening.
But that was only one side of the Aviary experience: on the other end sat incredibly loud free-jazz freakouts, shrieking dissonance, frantic Xiu Xiu-esque standing bass solos, and just overall chaos, all of which Holter (with her band) was happy to bring to Neumos as well. Tracks like “Turn the Light On,” “Chaitius,” and the show’s closing suite of “I Shall Love 1&2” were deafeningly loud, unsettlingly harsh, and legitimately bizarre in the best way. The loudness of Holter’s band was exceptional to me given that there wasn’t a guitar in sight for the entirety of her set. Julia really seemed to be in her element during these parts of the set, truly excited and happy that people were responding well to her admittedly more experimental stuff; after a particularly wild stretch of songs she thanked her band, her producer, and the audience for putting up with all the “layers of music” present within the Aviary material.
Julia Holter, as a songwriter, performer and bandleader, really raised the bar for me in terms of what to expect from live music in 2019. I’ve seen so many bands work the same angle for their live setup: guitars, some synths, drums, bass, et cetera. In contrast, Julia Holter led a crazy sextet of musicians playing bagpipes, flugelhorn, trumpet, violins and violas, standing bass, and a virtuoso drummer; everyone but Julia read off of sheet music. In the center of it all was the woman herself, playing on a Nord Stage 2 with some pretty convincing Rhodes and harpsichord patches. Even though she probably hasn’t found the mainstream success she has the potential for yet, I’ve thought of her for a while now as one of the most exciting working musicians, and this show for sure cemented that belief. Next time she comes around, do not miss it.
RILEY URBANO | everyday is an emergency | KXSU Music Reporter