Antone’s Nightclub, Austin, TX

The line between madness and love is mighty thin. From Greek myths to mid-century musicals to the end times, that’s been the focus of Julia Holter’s work. Sheer, unbashful beauty rippling at the edges with bursts of insanity. Her most recent, Aviary was the best example of her ornate pop gone wrong, but her live show, in the smoky, “Twin Peaks”-ish confines of Austin’s Antone’s Nightclub, did her thesis justice even more.

Local rockers Pelvis Wrestley opened with an appropriately moody set. Occasionally channeling Springsteen as the crowd trickled in, they played as the sun began to set, their energy ushering in a more mysterious temperament. Ana Roxanne served as the touring opener, bringing a blissed-out ambient set, swirling around a simple set up of a Roland, a few pedals and her own faded-out voice. Her music was deeply immersive and calming, like a relaxant slowly being released into the blood stream. And the near comatose hush that filled Roxanne’s music was the perfect foreplay into Holter’s vibrant and vicious beauty.

Holter’s live show cemented 2015’s Have You in My Wilderness and Aviary as companion pieces. Wilderness standing as a baroque series of vignettes, focused on pleasure and nostalgia, while Aviary turns introspective, battling both the wondrous imagination and the frenetic anxiety of an overworked mind.

The connections between the two are more obvious live. Despite the sumptuousness of Wilderness, it has a state of discombobulation lurking. The herky-jerky motion of “Feel You”’s harpsichord is quickly swallowed by strings in the studio, but live the twitching rhythm is magnified. The elegance is diminished to allow a greater sense of giddiness. “Am I heading toward you or are you mythological?” became more fevered and passionate in the dark. She flung through the fragments of “Les Jeux to You” (“I si, I though, I sex, I jeu, I nice, I hey!”) in an ecstatic trance. The jaunty “Sea Calls Me Home” was a bright left turn, even with the saxophone solo replaced with a squeal of incomprehensible noise.

Considering Loud City Song was a reimagining of the musical Gigi and Holter’s exploration of the naturally decibel-filled world of cities, there was an eerie perfection to the occasional clanking of glasses, shaking of margaritas and soft chatter. When a group from the very back of the venue started laughing during an Aviary interlude, it had a Lynchian fit, their laughter sounding pipped in from a film for Holter to creep over.

There was an unnerving uncanniness to the flow of instruments. Sound engineer Kenny Gilmore was on the board, making sure the sounds interwove in confounding fashion. Resident instrument monkey Tashi Wada flipped from a spaced-out selection of synths to a bagpipe without missing a beat, shifting the music from sparkling glory to hinting at violence bubbling beneath. With the morass of effects Holter could dump on her voice at any second, the bass, violins and keyboards occasionally sounded like a second Holter was prowling in the shadows. Sarah Belle Reid’s muted trumpet, in particular, had a worrying habit of mimicking Holter’s most reverbed moments.

Holter’s vocals and keyboard were mixed loud, nearly to an uncomfortable degree when she was playing without the band. Aviary is one of the few chamber pop albums that challenges metal records for sheer volume, and the band recreated that elated wall live. Love does not mean comfort. The beauty of a kiss and the beauty of a crashing tsunami are different forms, but they come from the same place of awe. And Holter’s live show creates that trembling reverence.

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