Listening to Angel Olsen live is a trip to a pre-Beatles rock ‘n’ roll age.
“This song is for Gwen.”
The Gwen in question is Gwen Stefani, who shouldn’t be too out of place at an Angel Olsen concert. Two badass women fronting rock bands and becoming idols to up and coming musicians of all sorts. But the shout-out to the erstwhile No Doubt frontwoman did feel a bit strange, not due to genre but to the era. See, listening to Angel Olsen live is a trip to a pre-Beatles rock ‘n’ roll age, and even with some modern banter, it was hard not to be transported.
L.A. rocker Chris Cohen opened Olsen’s sold-out show in Portland. The former Deerhoof member served as a red carpet for Olsen, as he played a sort of light-rock that harkened to the days of Jackson Browne, America and other FM hits from the ‘70s. And once he left, Olsen brought the crowd back another two decades.
The stage decoration was spare, only featuring some blue and white balloons (it was the drummer’s birthday), and Olsen’s crack backing band was dressed in matching suits complete with bolo ties. So the aesthetic was Weezer’s “Buddy Holly” video filtered through the American Southwest, but with the way they played, Olsen and co. could have been wearing one of Björk’s getups and still have sold the maximalist version of pre-‘60s American music.
Olsen played a good mix from her back catalog, not completely relying on the barn-burning My Woman, though she played most of that album. And that’s certainly where the highs came in. “Give It Up” roared and Olsen reached into a near scream as the song rocked to its end. “Where you are is where I want to be,” she shouted. Considering she mentioned how “thirsty” the crowd looked a few times, “Give it Up” seemed to be the room’s sweaty tension bursting. Burn Your Fire for No Witness’s “Hi-Five” had the same lustful energy, but it was “Shut Up Kiss Me” that brought the room down. It was the night’s biggest sing-along and came in only three songs into the set. Olsen looked a bit over the song before it started, as though she simply wanted to get it out of the way, but it was anything but a formality when she launched into it. Of all the songs that could directly trace their ancestry to Elvis and Buddy Holly, “Shut Up Kiss Me” ran ragged, as ferocious as it was catchy.
More impressive was Olsen’s collection of more meditative songs that held a subtle fire. The hazy “Heart Shaped Face” waltzed gracefully and set the mood for what felt like a late-night set of songs. And she delivered on that promise with the twin giants of My Woman, “Sister” and “Woman.” “Sister” came about halfway through the set, taking its time to build through its lengthy runtime, but “Woman” was even more impressive. “Woman” does grow to a shuddering climax on the album, but the studio version has nothing on the live beast. After a long, heavenly combination of Olsen’s voice and gentle bass, the song expanded until it filled the entire hall and exploded into a shower of guitar solos and unearthly wails from Olsen.
My Woman opener, “Intern,” was played from a speaker that sounded warped and delayed. She started her encore with it, and turned the already dreamy song into a near hymn. She slowed down the tempo and let two keyboards intertwine under her soft, but powerful voice. And “Woman” followed just after “Intern,” proving Olsen’s deftness at shifting emotional and volume power. So, it was a fitting tribute to a pantheon of classic artists from the Crickets to Gwen Stefani, but, more importantly, Olsen seems driven to make her own mark.