First, there is a staircase, then there is no staircase, then there is.
Shadowy railings angled up to a filigree balcony that stretched across the entire back of the stage of The Van Buren. It looked like it could have been airlifted from the lobby of the Overlook Hotel, and Angel Olsen and her six bandmates, all clad in black, were the locale's spectral house band, banging out hits for the rest of eternity.
Shrouded in smoke and diffuse violet light, there were moments when they looked less real than the projection of a staircase behind them. But then the lights would change, the staircase would vanish, only to return later. Olsen and her band singing sweet, sad songs and '90s tunes on a dark stage with desert vistas painted on both sides of it.
If tonight’s show were to become a live album, it should be called Mellon Collie and the Grand Ole Opry.
New Age tones and krautrock-y drones provided the entrance music for Olsen’s band, who kicked off their hour-plus set with the ominous throb of “New Love Cassette.” The volume was perfect in The Van Buren. It was loud enough that you could feel it in your bones without it being painful.
Covered by a wash of magenta light, Olsen's voice cut through the din. The other instruments, the acoustics of the room, and the endless chatter of concertgoers who paid good money to hear themselves talk over the music could not smother it.
Going into this show, I wondered how the intense, orchestrated songs on All Mirrors would translate in a live setting. The answer to that question: superbly.
The heavier numbers like “Lark” retained their power as the depth of emotion Olsen put into her vocals reduced me to tears. The poppier songs, like the Beatles-esque "Spring," offered some relief from the gut-wrenching numbers. "Special," from her Phases b-sides album, ended in a squall of beautiful guitar noise that sounded like the noisy coda at the end of Galaxie 500's "Don't Let Our Youth Go To Waste," but turned up to 11.
Based on her catalog, you probably wouldn't expect an Angel Olsen show to be full of comedic relief, but that was exactly the case. Olsen and her band bantered through the night. Her guitarist teased the audience by doing snippets of '90s jams like Everclear's "Santa Monica," Blind Melon's "No Rain," Collective Soul's "Shine," and even a bit of Enya. Olsen even playfully threatened to serenade one lucky concertgoer's mother with an a capella rendition of 311's "Amber" over FaceTime.
With her band offstage, Olsen played the standard "More Than You Know" and her own "Pops" with a spotlight shining on her back and that shadowy staircase arching behind her. Giants like Billie Holiday and Ella Fitzgerald made "More Than You Know" their own back in the day. Olsen's voice, big enough to fill up a steeple, was more than up to the challenge.
It was at this moment, hunched over a piano, the filigree balcony over her head, that Olsen seemed like a figure out of time, a torch singer whose fire could burn brightly in any century. But then the lights shifted, the staircase melted away, and Olsen's band came back on to do "Chance" for the encore.
The cellphone cameras flare to life, and we're back in 2019.
"New Love Cassette"
"Shut Up Kiss Me"
"More Than You know" (solo, cover)
Last Night: Angel Olsen at The Van Buren.
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The Crowd: A sold-out crowd of bearded dudes, bespectacled ladies, and music nerds across multiple generations.
Overheard: Dostoevsky“Oh yeah, it’s Thanksgiving - happy day of stealing things from people!” — Angel Olsen
“That’s pretty much every day” — a lady in the audience responded
Random Notebook Dump: Stood behind a patron with a dope-ass jacket that had the cover to The Byrds’ Sweetheart of the Rodeo patched on the back. I’m not a big fan of that record or of country-rock in general, but Sweetheart of the Rodeo's art is one of the all-time great album covers. If I ever become famous and decide to pull a Ben Affleck, screw getting a phoenix — I’m getting that cowgirl wreathed in a heart made of flowers tattooed all over my back.