I opened the door to The Biltmore, and the courtly hands of violins immediately led me down the stairs. But when I laid my eyes on the source, I saw only one violin. 2013 Peak Performance Project contender Hannah Epperson sat on a stool, her leg broken, and limped her way through loop-pedal-assisted violin arrangements and nervous talk. She wasn’t the commanding performer I saw absorb an entire audience prior to Shane Koyczan at The Vogue Theatre two springs ago, but her set, which included a borrowed melody from Beirut (don’t ask me which song), was pleasant enough. While more barebone than many violinists who utilize looping, I’m pretty much always impressed by anyone who can compose in such a way by themselves live.
Hurting far more in stage presence was second opener Nedelle Torrisi. She and her band played “the quiet storm version” of the songs from her just-released self-titled album, which I guess meant songs such as “Can’t Wait”, “Don’t Play Dumb” and the “fighting song” “Double Horizon” (“It’s a little mean,” Torrisi braced us) are livelier on record. That L.A. electronic pop artists including Nite Jewel and the night’s own Julia Holter collaborated on Torrisi’s album implies greater depth on the record. But live, the drums/dual keyboards/single back-up singer set-up felt limited. Not helping matters was Torrisi only laying down a few notes on her keyboard at a time, leaving Kenny Gilmour to carry the tunes largely by himself. Surely, Torrisi would have made a greater impression with a more expansive band configuration, but as things were, Torrisi and co. were no more sensuous than a tealight-lit dinner over cheap wine. I’ll stick to Chef Lonely Heart’s.
Julia Holter turned the night from pleasant if a bit awkward at best to full-on heavenly. Cellist Chris Votek, violinist Andrew Tholl and saxophonist Danny Myer imbued her chamber synth-pop with jazzy inflections. And it was their loose jazz disintegrations, from Myer’s sputtering sax, drummer Corey Fogel’s rain-shower cymbals and Votek’s and Tholl’s dramatic, unpredictable strings, that created the lively presence that both Epperson and Torrisi so desperately lacked. Synth-pop can generally go in one of two directions: clinically sterile or warm and inviting. The slightly off-the-cuff improvising that largely shaped Holter’s latest album Loud City Song was just the element that prevented her from falling into the first category.
Working with technical professionals has been “freeing” for the independently spirited Holter. But while some individuals may feel anxious doing so, their inabilities highlighted by others’ aptitudes, Holter, relieved of some pressure, was unflinching: even when she accidentally swatted her microphone, she cracked a smile, yet she sang unabated.
Moreover, recording Loud City Song with studio professionals for a change was “more playful” and even “fun” for Holter, which certainly seemed like her experience playing those songs live. And with an astounded, clearly unfamiliar audience member having yelled “It’s like King Crimson with a chick singing!”, audiences clearly felt the same way – so much so that the entire house remained completely, reverently hushed until the final resonation, the final utterance of sound dissipated, at which point they erupted in applause.
“I don’t know King Crimson!” Holter laughed after the fan’s initial comment. If anything, King Crimson should know her. Okay, that’s totally fanboyish of me to say, but my head’s still ringing with her loud city songs, and I can’t think straight.