Wonder Ballroom, Portland, OR

Chelsea Wolfe has always existed at the intersection of folk and metal. Her music varies from hushed, acoustic ballads to full-on sludge metal where her voice floats trapped in a wash of feedback and doom. The balance has always possessed a paradoxical uneasiness, an alchemy she perfected once on her 2013 pinnacle, Pain Is Beauty. After drifting further towards her metal side on follow-up Abyss (2015) and then even more unto its extreme on Hiss Spun (2017), Wolfe retreated back to the gentler, though no less devastating, sound of her early music on new album, Birth of Violence.

Coming to Portland in support of the album, Wolfe played a 17-song, 75-minute set that eschewed the thundering midsection of her discography and focused mainly on new songs and ones from her 2012 set, Unknown Rooms: A Collection of Acoustic Songs. Accompanied by collaborated Ben Chisholm, Wolfe spent the majority of the show standing on a raised dais, surrounded by a ring of white antlers, tattered white cloth hanging from her microphone as she performed a haunting concert.

No earplugs were required as Wolfe began the show with “Flatlands,” wearing a white gown and strumming an acoustic guitar. The fragile song set the stage for a run of new material including the title track, “American Darkness,” “The Mother Road” and “Erde.” The crowd watched the show in hushed reverence, sometimes shouting encouragement in between the songs.

Wolfe’s well-documented bouts of stage fright seem like a thing of the past. Rather than hide behind a wash of noise, the musician played a show with dazzling confidence, front and center as fake candles guttered on fake trees surrounding the dais. Though she said very little, Wolfe has a captivating stage presence, making it nearly impossible to take your eyes off her.

Aside from her own material, Wolfe played a pair of covers: Roky Erickson’s “Night of the Vampire” and Joni Mitchell’s “Woodstock.” She sang the latter seated next to Chisholm as he played the keyboard, the song’s beauty achingly hard to take. Meanwhile, older songs such as “Pale on Pale” and “Boyfriend” both appeared during the evening. An easy highlight was the sole Pain Is Beauty representative, “Sick,” which sounded even more evocative in a stripped-down, stark rendition.

Awash in fog, face hidden behind her hair, Wolfe finished her first set with new song “Highway.” After thunderous applause, she returned to play “The Way We Used To” before retreating into the wings. Wolfe doesn’t need sludgy guitars and loud drums to be powerful. This concert proved there is a power in quiet and beauty.

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