Julia Holter shows sold out Vancouver crowd who’s really in control

Photo of Julia Holter by Jon Vincent

“I was actually kind of scared for a minute.” “I never saw an opener that made me sweat.” These were just two of the comments from an astonished crowd immediately following Julia Holter’s opener, Circuit des Yeux, at last Wednesday’s sold out show at the Cobalt.

With one acoustic-electric guitar – and generous amounts of pedal-play – Haley Fohr, aka Circuit des Yeux, made the audience’s hairs stand on end. She became lost in her music as she spun hypnotic finger-picked melodies over which she vocalized in Gregorian-like chants. Her voice, processed through a distortion mic, echoed with reverent grandeur, caressing the vaults and filling the aisles of the monumental cathedral that took form in my mind. Waves of distortion only added to her and the audience’s collective meditation.

Fohr took her time doing what she needed to do to help the music unfold organically, she a gardener, cultivating aural magic – a conduit more than a source of sound herself.

In her final act, she crouched down at her pedals. “ShhhhhShhhhh…” she repeated soothingly. But as a groundswell of electronic noise rolled underneath her and became increasingly volatile, it was clear that she wasn’t pacifying or even shushing the audience; she was adding to the cacophony with her own voice. The noise erupted, and she concurrently screamed and cried with such animism that she seemed locked in the critical moment of an exorcism, purging herself of some demonic spirits, wrenching the last drop of evil out of her body. She continued howling while the volcanic noise threatened to engulf her from below, sucking her into a horrifying void. Ironic, as her own voice seemed to emanate from the pit of her stomach and could have swallowed the audience whole.

Julia Holter invited greater warmth beginning with “City Appearing”. Devin Hoff’s sultry double bass string-bends set the mood for the rest of the night: off-kilter and, as Holter felt, a bit “steamy.”

Circuit des Yeux hardly uttered a word, but Holter was a bit more talkative (though both barely spoke above whispers). After a couple more older tunes including “In the Green Wild”, she dipped into selections from her latest album, last fall’s Have You in My Wilderness. “This is a song about possessiveness.” Holter said, introducing the first new song, “Silhouette”, in a delayed… mode of talking… that she continued… for most of the night… “The possessiveness… of being in love…”

Holter poked a bit of fun. “There’s a lot of interesting stuff going on over there,” she said, noting the chatty crowd near the removable partition between the Cobalt and the Boxcar next door. “You guys are so quiet,” she said to her faithful observers in front of the stage. “But you wanna talk. You’re mesmerized. You’re mesmerized by the music,” she teased with perhaps only a hint of sarcasm. “You guys gotta get outta here,” a security guard could be overheard saying. Holter riffed: “We gotta play our other song and get outta here.” Only a hint of sarcasm?

Holter’s banter was generally lighthearted and loose if not sometimes rambling: “It’s steamy. The steamy wet particles in the air…affect our… violas…” She mimed pinching and rubbing these invisible particles. “So we have to…” She closed her eyes and rubbed her face with her hands and trailed off and into “How Long?”.

The music remained as nuanced as expected, though, even the more straightforward tracks from Wilderness like the harpsichord-filled “Feel You”. Long-time drummer Corey Fogel was particularly deliberate, whether conducting the banging of metal on “So Lillies” or the shimmer of chimes on “Lucette Stranded on the Island”. Even brand new violist Dina Maccabee, who just learned the songs, seemed like she’d been a part of the band for years.

Between songs, Holter appeared slightly detached and, again, subtly, possibly sarcastic. With this surprising personality misalignment (considering how engaging she comes across in every interview), an encore following “Vasquez” actually seemed unlikely: an encore would have been a predictable way to end to a slightly unpredictable night. But the band obliged the “quiet” audience’s sincere clamouring for more with one last song, “Sea Calls Me Home”.

With a new album all about possessiveness and power dynamics, Julia Holter showed the sold out Vancouver crowd who, despite her unexpected demeanour, was really in control.

View more photos of Julia Holter and Circuit des Yeux here.

Leslie Ken Chu

Leslie Ken Chu