Saved by an Angel

I walk into the Media Club, and it’s nearly pitch black, save for the lighted bar and a few candles surrounding a MacBook on stage. Oh, boy, a laptop onstage. My favourite setup. Chimes wash up like flotsam in steady waves of ambience from the house speakers. I can’t tell if the people who aren’t talking to each other or on their phones are watching intently because they’re absorbed in the glacial sounds or if they’re just eagerly anticipating something to happen. Suddenly, one person sits down on the floor. A trend starts: soon, everyone on the main floor is seated like Occupy the Media Club. If they’re like me, they’re protesting boredom. They aren’t fidgeting as much as me, but from the little I can make out in the darkness, the first person who sat down is scribbling away in a notebook. Another writer perhaps? I wonder who she writes for…

A mind shouldn’t wander like this during a performance, and I like my share of ambience, but that Sunday night just wasn’t the night for it. Maybe I wasn’t in the mood for “getting lost in the atmosphere” because up until the day before the show, I thought the Vancouver band Village was opening. I’d heard so much about them from the biggest shoegaze/dream-pop fan I know, and I’d missed them numerous times, so I was extremely disappointed to find out the opener was actually North Carolina’s Ross Gentry, A.K.A. Villages, with an “s” – the smallest difference in name but a large difference in sound.

Up until Angel Olsen, I was starting to think the Media Club was cursed for me. My first time there was the only time I walked out of a show. I nearly had to leave during Chelsea Wolfe and King Dude because my mildly sore throat from the night before blossomed into a full-on fever during the show; simply standing still was painful, especially as I fought off the chills while wearing two layers and a jacket indoors. And Terry Malts, one of my favourite bands in 2012, only managed to pull off a lukewarm set at the Media Club despite their Ramones-ripping pop-punk.

“Luck” would have it that I walked into the Media Club this past Sunday with a killer chest cold, the same one that forced me to skip Nervous Talk and Crystal Swells on Record Store Day (if you were at Neptoon Records, you know how suffocatingly hot the store got during and after the Evaporators). But the St. Louis-born, Chicago-based Angel Olsen’s debut full-length album Half Way Home was one of my favourite releases of 2012, so there was no way I was letting anything stop me from seeing her live.

Angel Olsen kicked off week three of her current tour at the Media Club. It’s her first West Coast tour, but more significantly, it’s her first tour with a backing band. And though she’s expressed uncertainty as to where her writing and performing will go now that she’s working with a band, that was part of the excitement as much for me as I’m sure it is for her.

I don’t know how long Olsen’s been playing with drummer Joshua Jaeger, bassist Stewart Bronaugh and cellist Danah Olivetree, but they sounded so right together that I never would have thought they formed just for this tour. By the second song, “Drunk and with Dreams”, Olsen showed that with this new outfit, she could rock. The hardest rocking of all (and most altered from the recorded version) was “The Sky Opened Up”, my surprise hit of the night.

There’s always a question of whether or not voices that are usually only heard in intimate settings, especially voices as humanly fragile as Olsen’s, can be sustained when belted out. I was happy to hear that as loud and distinct as the bass, drums and cello were, Olsen’s voice rose above them all. The strength of her voice really showed when she sang acoustic over her own electric guitar and by how loudly her voice took over the room even when she stood a fair distance from her mic.

Olsen’s only mildly unimpressive moments were actually the two songs I’d looked forward to the most, the more uptempo “The Waiting” and “Sweet Dreams”. But they were only the slightest bit unimpressive because they were the only songs she didn’t give a unique, live band spin.

Half Way Home marked the beginning of a breakthrough year for Angel Olsen in 2012. Her rise only continues in 2013 with the January release of her new Sleepwalker 7” and her recent signing to Indiana label Jagjaguwar. If you hadn’t heard of Angel Olsen before, you surely will soon. And there’s a good chance when that happens that one of Olsen’s final lines of the night will resonate with you the way it resonated with me: as I left the Media Club, although I didn’t couldn’t identify the song, I found myself repeating her last words in my head: “I’ll never forget you all of my life.”

Leslie Ken Chu

Leslie Ken Chu