(Photos: Marcus Moxham)
Did you realize that Chelsea Wolfe is such a big thing? I didn’t. But the handful of depressed, buttoned-up folks shut out of her Portland show signaled that the Los Angeles songstress is posed to break out, especially in the wake of her acclaimed new set of songs Pain Is Beauty.
The audience was a sea of black jackets, tattoos and piercings, just about right for an artist that treads in doom-drenched folk tinged with electronic twitches. Her sound is similar to Zola Jesus, yet more fragile, her voice something more slippery, an ethereal being that floats above the darkness of the music.
On her last tour, Wolfe visited stages armed only with an acoustic guitar and some effects pedals. This time around, we were treated to a full band, a wise choice when her new music is as intense as Swans, as beautiful as the Cure. The concert was an emotional experience, sometimes wrenching, occasionally cathartic as new songs such as “Feral Love” and “We Hit a Wall” played out as slow-building works of primal splendor. Wolfe knows how to bring the drama, her songs full of yearning crescendos, haunting quiet spots and eerie sections of drone.
Wrapped in a white shawl, Wolfe sang into two different microphones, each laden with a different effect. She didn’t interact much with the audience besides a few demure greetings. The real show was watching a singer create a mythology for herself as her expressive eyes stood out from the dark makeup surrounding them. Wolfe cut a figure as ghostly as the sound of her music, a mystique that doesn’t cling to just any artist.
Technical issues were the only thing that marred a near perfect night of music. Maybe Wolfe’s mic had a bad XLR cable or maybe something went wrong on the soundboard, but her vocals cut out at least once per song. At first, I thought it was just another effect, but it continued throughout, positively destroying the solo acoustic number she played during the encore. But what does one do in such a situation? Stop the show or soldier through?
Wolfe and her band retreated into the shadows as the show came to an end, the crowd appreciative in its applause but not really demanding more. Pain Is Beauty is a massive step forward for Wolfe. Next time she is in town, she can certainly play a bigger room. Maybe her popularity won’t come as such a surprise then.