Jolie Holland (with opener Matt Bauer)
The Walnut Room
Saturday, October 10th, 2009
by Adam Perry for Westword
Better Than: Walking from Market St. Station to Walnut & 31st in the cold that postponed game 3 of the NLDS
No one shines like Brooklyn-based indie-folk goddess Jolie Holland. Just as Neil Young was the depth and edge of CSNY, Holland was the stand-out talent in the Canadian all-girl alt-folk group the Be Good Tanyas and for the last half-decade has excelled on her own. Last fall, Holland drew a large crowd to the Boulder Theater on the heels of her latest record (The Living and the Dead) and impressively nailed spot-on versions of most of that album’s songs, even though she was so under the weather that coughing between verses became a theme. Saturday night at the Walnut Room in Denver, Holland was healthy and full of attitude, and the vibe was at once magical and slightly heartbreaking: someone shouted out “you’re bigger than this venue!” early in Holland’s 80-minute set, and the singer-songwriter’s frequent banter included repeated complaints about having to tour-manage herself; having a certifiably insane current schedule of “five weeks with one night off”; and having to take the wheel for all-night drives to the next city, as she did after the Walnut gig to reach Sunday’s concert in Omaha. In essence, Holland mesmerized the devoted Denver audience as usual, but at times the reality of her increasingly mismanaged career made the caress of her dream-like voice seem bitter-sweet.
Holland’s infinitesimally small group of modern female singer-songwriter peers, including Neko Case and Feist, headline the Ogden and the Fillmore when passing through Denver. Sadly (although not for her fans), Saturday night Holland played a beautiful set of geniusly-crafted Southern indie-folk for just over a hundred people in an intimate (and incredible sounding) space where she and guitarist Grey Gersten were routinely interrupted by music and chatter from the adjoined-pizza restaurant.
Holland trembled and curled her lip as she sang unique throwback ballads like “Sweet Loving Man” and “Alley Flowers”; Gersten played with eerie improvised melodies by her side with a black and white Specimen Products guitar, sounding like a swirling mix of Jerry Garcia and Marc Ribot. The drop-dead gorgeous Holland once asked “What’s going on in there?” when the door between the venue and Walnut’s restaurant opened, letting in a cloud of sound as she engaged in near-constant chatter with members of the focused and awe-consumed audience who were up close…which was basically the whole place.
Instead of highlighting The Living and the Dead, Holland included great songs from most of her albums and threw in a few choice covers. With only Gersten at her side, she altered the lyrics to many of her tunes and deconstructed startlingly elegant originals from the dense rock sound they had with her full electric band last year to dusty, confessional compositions that showcased Holland’s voice and thrived without a net. As always, she was simultaneously shy, honest, confident and consciously hip, which somehow lands Holland’s male folk-rock contemporaries like the Fleet Foxes on the shelves at Starbucks but finds her loading her own equipment and competing with noise from cooks calling out “Chris, your pizza’s ready!” To be fair, the “1-2-3-4” iPod commercial was a huge part of Feist’s well-deserved mainstream success, but Jolie Holland really should be headlining 2,000-capacity venues (or bigger) too.
In his autobiography Chronicles, Bob Dylan said that in the 1980’he though of himself as a “folk-rock relic from a bygone era,” which almost caused him to quit the music business for good. Dylan was able to evolve again and move forward, but Jolie Holland’s problem is more complicated: the more she adeptly writes and records increasingly amazing antiquated (though original) music, the more her fans love and support her as sort of a “folk-rock relic” who arrived in the 2000’s to save the music world from these shallow times where Miley Cyrus qualifies as a great female pop-star. Unfortunately, the more Holland shies from taking the business side of her career seriously, the smaller her audience gets. In this journalist’s case, Holland reneged on a confirmed feature interview and then forgot to put me on the guest-list to review the show, claiming that she was “spacey as hell” and “forgot to turn on her cell-phone and check her music-business responsibilities for the evening.” It’s gotta be nearly impossible to get everything right when you’re managing your own coast-to-coast tour, but the little things are important.
Personal Bias: My soon-to-be-born daughter will someday find out that Jolie Holland’s albums were the soundtrack to her mother and father’s initial romance
Random Detail: Holland’s guitar strap snapped during the first verse of “Palmyra,” causing her to abort the song and do “Goodbye California” instead
By The Way: Holland could’ve made a career out of her sensational violin playing. She brought it out frequently at the Walnut Room and was particularly spectacular during the brilliant jam she and Gersten played out of “Old Fashioned Morphine”
The Littlest Birds
Sweet Loving Man
I Won’t Try to Make You Change Your Mind
New Song (Sweet Honey Girl?)
Oh My Stars
Real Tina Turner in My Time
Do You Have to Go Crazy
Old Fashioned Morphine
New Song (You And I Are the First Day of Spring?)