No one will probably ever know what went wrong at Howler last night, at the second and final Laneway sideshow for Missouri-born singer-songwriter Angel Olsen. It was a strange show, a show that singlehandedly left everyone mesmerized but also wondering if we had all done something horribly wrong to offend the poor woman.
It had started off so well. Special guests, seasoned Melbourne singer Ella Thompson and her band, played a knockout set to a tentative crowd (the whole ‘standing at least five metres away from the stage’ thing) – but didn’t let any sense of awkward indifference get them down. Playing songs from her elusive Elysium EP, Thompson’s voice sparkled over penetrating synths, heart-stopping electric drums and melodic guitar. It was more than enough to make you want to stalk her social media handles during the break.
‘Are you looking forward to seeing Angel Olsen?’ Thompson asked the crowd, to which they responded with hearty ‘woos’, ‘They’re going to be amazing’. Earlier in their set Thompson had called Angel a ‘hero’. Yep, we weren’t the only ones who were pretty damn excited to see Olsen playing her oeuvre of beautifully raw, powerful and emotionally wrenching songs.
At 9:45, Olsen and her band came onto the stage. The sold-out show now packed, the crowd remaining still and hushed in anticipation of her otherworldly brilliance. ‘Hullo’ said she, a discomfortingly forced smile on her face and vacant look in her eyes. ‘Maybe that’s just how she is’ I conceded, surprised. It was a thought that came back many, many times until the end of the show.
The band launched into a shaky rendition of ‘Hi-Five’. Olsen’s voice was great, but there was something about it that seemed a little off. It was as if she only half-formed the words, leaving gaping empty spaces where there should have been soaring vocals. It got better as it went along. Maybe they just needed a warm up.
The song finishes, and without a hint of fervor she then says ‘so this is our first time in Melbourne. It’s a beautiful city. You guys have some really cool buildings…’ the audience cheers; Olsen smirks, ‘so good job you guys.’ — ‘good job?’ Do I detect a hint of malice in that last bit? I think I do, but it doesn’t matter because she has already kicked off into another song off of her Strange Cacti EP.
This time Olsen and her band play beautifully. Her voice sounds like it is, as expected, from another world. She is able to sing as if whispering, creating an ethereal, dreamy effect. Still, they all stand motionless on the stage as if they are autobots programmed only to play the songs. She stares vaguely into the crowd while the rest of the band stare at the floor.
This goes on for almost all of the set; gorgeous renditions interchanged with strange, vaguely sarcastic/snarky banter with the crowd. Amongst which included the lines ‘You are able to stand totally still and be really angry, you know’ (um, sorry?) and ‘It can be really hard to tell, when you see someone looking at you with a really serious face, whether they’re thinking ‘this is shit’ or ‘this is amazing’. It’s really hard’. Was she looking at my face? If you were, Angel, it was actually a mixture of the two.
Olsen and her band play the final track ‘Forgiven/Forgotten’, and following a brief intermission they saunter back for an encore. It is at this moment that some truth-spitting dude from the left of audience yells out: ‘HAVE SOME FUCKIN’ ENTHUSIASM, YOU GUYS ARE AMAZING’. Olsen and her band definitely hear it, but further proving my theory that they are autobots, do not even flinch. And they certainly don’t show any enthusiasm.
They play a cover of Lambchop’s ‘I’m A Stranger Here’, and I can’t help but wonder if I should take all of this personally. Olsen smiles every now and again and it’s very disconcerting. Afterwards the band leaves wordlessly while she remains on the stage, guitar in tow. She plays ‘White Fire’ and like ‘Hi-Five’. It is beautiful, but doesn’t possess the same haunting eeriness captured in the studio recording.
Olsen is finished and the crowd claps, cheers and whistles. Some guy next to me says ‘she is so fucking sexy’, and I am left feeling like I don’t understand anything anymore. What just happened?
‘Have a good night’ she says as she leaves. No Angel, you have a good night.