US cult songwriter seizes her moment in Berlin with a set of intense country-rock tuneage.
US cUlt hero SeizeS her moment in the german capital.
“WITH EACH SONG, I’M PUTTING MYSELF INTO THAT CHARACTER AND MOOD.” ANGEL OLSEN
ANGEL OLSEN COLUMBIA THEATER, BERLIN TUESDAY, 25 OCTOBER, 2016
Six years into her slow-building career, Angel Olsen inspires intense devotion from her fans. At one recent show in Glasgow, someone threw a note for her onstage that hit her square in the face. At another in Manchester, one follower cried out for her to play her brooding song Unfuck the world immediately since the fan had to leave and catch their train home. But when performing, the St Louis-raised 29- year-old is not one to be rushed, moving as she does between scratchy garage rock and her more typical songs of haunted country. “I think people are still afraid to get too crazy into it,” she says of her usually hushed and reverential audiences. “They want to be respectful when the quiet songs happen.” Sitting backstage at the Columbia Theater, a former cinema in the Tempelhof area of Berlin, Olsen is two weeks into a European tour but seems rested and relaxed. Travelling with her crew and five-piece band on a sleeper bus, she awoke this morning and had a wander around Kreuzberg before finding a decent vegetarian restaurant after days of “eating crap”. Now she is psyching herself up for the sold-out show in the 800- capacity venue. After teenage years fronting punkish St Louis band The Good Fight, Olsen moved to Chicago, released her debut EP Strange Cacti on cassette in 2010 and began a sideline career singing backing vocals with gnomic alt-country artist Bonnie “Prince” Billy, before branching out on her own once again to make her stunning breakthrough album, 2014’s Burn Your Fire For No Witness. Now with this year’s follow-up, My Woman, she has added retro electronics to her spooked, acutely emotional songs. The California-shot video for her latest, yearning single, Sister, is absorbing and affecting. At one point as she repeatedly sings the line, “All my life I thought I’d change”, tears roll down her cheeks. The product of method acting or genuine sadness, Q wonders? “I think it’s probably both,” she laughs, sitting in her dressing room. “I was feeling very emotional. We’d been working 12 hours a day. Whenever I’m really tired I think it’s just easier to cry.” Like PJ Harvey, there’s a distinct sense that Angel Olsen is never phoning this stuff in. As she takes to the stage in a glittering top, surrounded by her band uniformly dressed in grey suits, she is all intensity and star power, launching into the opening, dual Roy Orbison-echoing whammy of Never Be Mine and Hi-Five. The effect for the audience is like being beamed into another era, as if we’ve been zapped into a weird, off-strip Las Vegas cabaret joint in 1961. Three numbers in, though, Olsen’s facade slips and a tentativeness reveals itself, as she fluffs a line in the rattling Shut Up Kiss Me, temporarily losing her place in the song. When it ends, she puts the mistake down to “freestyle nervousness… you guys are making me nervous.” The Berliners respond with sympathetic whoops and the show goes on. As Olsen moves into her quieter songs, she regains her poise. Around her, the band plays with precision but sparsely, letting her voice and guitar be the focus. The ghostly twang of Heart Shaped Face and the soulful Those Were The Days are utterly entrancing, and even when she stretches the songs out to lengths that might test the patience of a typical crowd, Olsen’s fans remain mesmerised and enthralled, staying virtually silent before erupting with wild applause. Returning for a two-song encore of Intern and Woman, Olsen ditches her guitar to turn side-on to the crowd and sing while playing a vintage organ – its eerie, reverberating washes akin to Brian Eno’s ambient treatments if he’d invented them in the 1950s. It’s spellbinding stuff. Earlier backstage the singer had told Q, “I just try to get into a mode with each song where I’m putting myself in that character and mood. I want to deliver it in a way that’s genuine and real.” Watching Angel Olsen on the now half-lit stage, her enormous voice filling the hall with spine-tingling atmosphere, it’s clear that her enigma is set to grow and grow.
Fringe benefits: Angel Olsen, Berlin, 25 October, 2016.
Neon nights: fans gather outside Berlin’s Columbia Theater. “Like being zapped into a weird, off-strip Las Vegas cabaret joint in 1961.” Suits you: Olsen with her five-piece band backstage.