Perth Festival: Julia Holter - Chevron Gardens - 10/02/14
I kind of wish Julia Holter had Fleetwood Mac money so she could just go H.A.M and pull a Tusk. Give her a whole fucking travelling orchestra and let her spool that thing into a monstrous multiplication of the larger than life atmosphere she can concoct from just five instrumentalists: a drummer, saxophonist, violinist and cellist, along with herself on vocals and korg.
Close your eyes at her Festival Gardens performance and you might be surprised to find out that all that sound is only coming from five musicians, and that she's upgraded from a measly three when she appeared at Laneway last year. Holter's style of songwriting comes straight out of the classical method, where each part interacts with one another, including the vocals. What stands her out from other quote indie unquote songwriters is that the vocals don't simply overlay the music underneath but intertwine with them in an inseperable whole.
One of the keys to her live performance, with the improtance of Holter's vocal style to the whole package, is her enunciation. While it may seem overly preppy or practiced, when a vocalist can perform so clearly and deliberately that his or her ticks inflect meaning into not just lyrics, but whole songs themselves, is when that person truly has control of their music and audience. Holter is the howling banshee at the centre of the caterwauling madness that forms the end of 'Betsy on the Roof', but she's also the loose calm in the centre of the storm in her dark rendition of Barbara Lewis' 'Hello Stranger'. She folds into the music, central to its meaning but not overshadowing it.
The strongest highlights are those that bring the whole band into focus. Loud City Song (her 2013 album)'s imperious highlight 'Maxim I' transitioned seemlessly from its uplifting verses to its intricate symphonic fills, while 'In the Green Wild', with its arresting modernist performance poetry (“there's a flavour to the sound of walking no one ever noticed before”) injected energy into a show that only at times seemed more about technical acuity than interaction. The main set closed with a manic run-through of 'Maxim II', her Michael Jackson referencing art-pop track showcasing her saxophonist Danny Myers', multi-tracked, looped noise and Aylerisms.
When Julia Holter and co. returned for a two song encore they appropriately closed with 'Goddess Eyes II', from 2012's Ekstasis. A busy piece of flowing parts and a hook provided by a vocoded rendering of Holter's voice, the band eventually stripped back part by part until it ended with just Holter singing the final line, unaccompanied, into the darkness beyond. In a performance all about atmosphere, its soundwaves engulfing its audience and intertwining with the oxygen around them, it seemed appropriate to have each layer pulled back part by part until there was nothing left. Having just upgraded her band from three to five, hopefully this effect will be even more profound as Holter's fame grows and she finally gets the orchestra her songwriting was made for.
P.S. Ducktails (one third of the indie-rock trio Real Estate) soaked reverb and drowned out vocals beforehand. Reviews among my friends ranged from “boring” to “looked bored to be here”.