Selling out Revolution Hall is a big step up. With a voice like Olsen’s, she can expect bigger audiences to come.
(Photo: Fernando Omedé)
Angel Olsen’s voice possesses the ability to render 850 people motionless. I know this because I saw it happen at Revolution Hall, an abandoned school that serves as one of Portland’s newest music venues. During set-closer “White Fire”—the smoldering, virtuosic song with a line from which her 2014 breakout Burn Your Fire for No Witness derives its title—Olsen mesmerized the audience. What makes that feat so impressive is that Olsen otherwise carries herself loosely as a performer, bantering between songs and hamming it up with self-proclaimed “stupid jokes.” But when her band left the stage for her final few songs, and Olsen stood alone with her guitar, this down-home indie folk singer shot up into the stratosphere.
After opening with “Free,” off debut album Half Way Home, Olsen immediately began endearing herself to the audience. “Is my fly down—I have this feeling,” she joked, checking her high-waist black jeans. Given that the theater itself is an old elementary school auditorium tucked into the heart of labyrinthine, locker-flanked corridors, Revolution Hall is fully-seated, which was clearly outside of the norm for the venues Olsen has passed through lately. Having recently returned from a September stint of performances in Europe, she seemed slightly weirded-out to open her show in front of a seated audience. “How’s your bottom?” Olsen teased before launching into a somewhat rushed version of “Hi-Five” from Burn Your Fire. Afterwards, she drove home her point by rationalizing, “Now that we’ve got you all here sitting down, might as well play some more songs.” Eventually, she would coax everyone to stand, and despite the narrow, old-fashioned theater seats available to them, most in attendance would stay on their feet for the duration.
Soon after, “Lights Out” offered Olsen the chance to flash her insane vocal range (which usually thrives most with the sparser songs) in one of her more forceful numbers. The slow intro to this song was one of the first times the room grew still, the audience transfixed on the unassuming figure of a dynamo vocalist before them, first tenderly cooing and then belting it out to the rafters. She also shined on “Acrobat,” off her debut, its minor-key guitar finger-picking providing an ominous backdrop. Even as she dazzled the audience with her balladry, Olsen kept it light between songs. When an audience member shouted out that she liked Olsen’s new short haircut, the singer thanked her and joked, “My mom’s gonna kill me.”
Naturally, the tail end of the set was reserved for the showstoppers. With her band disappearing backstage, it was only Olsen, a spotlight and the towering curtain behind her. If a tender “Unfucktheworld” set us up, the protracted “White Fire” knocked us down. By the time her band rejoined Olsen for that set-capper’s climax, the audience found their voices again and yelped in appreciation. After a one-song encore, Olsen sent us off into the night, the old, renovated school serving as the perfect analogy for the indie folk singer’s sensibilities—a shiny, new vintage aesthetic. Olsen had remarked that last time she swung through Portland, she’d played the intimate Mississippi Studios. At nearly three times the size, selling out Revolution Hall is a big step up. With a voice like Olsen’s, she can expect bigger audiences to come.