Yeah, I went there
Jolie Holland at the Duck Room, St.Louis 8/9/14
While the idea behind my You had to be there column is to shine a bitter, vindictive light on a sampling of musical, artistic and other cultural events you probably missed out on in Springfield the previous weekend, it must be acknowledged that some things just don’t ever make their way to town, for a variety of reasons. While Springfield does have a vibrant and productive homegrown creative community which is virtually starving for your support, another great thing about Springfield which many fail to take advantage of is the fact that we are also in reasonable day-tripping proximity to several college towns and even a metropolis or two, along with the cultural sustenance offered thereupon. So, on those occasions when I am compelled to “go regional,” I plan to rub in these particular experiences ex post facto via my alternate column, Yeah, I went there, debuting here today. In fact, right now.
The Texas-bred, Brooklyn-based Jolie Holland has been one of my favorite musical artists since her second CD, Escondida, came to my attention about ten years ago. Holland is often chucked into either an “Americana” or “chick singer-songwriter” bag and dismissed thusly, but these simple categories don’t do justice to her alternately fragile and volcanic, highly personal and yet somehow all-encompassing music. To say that Holland’s voice can sometimes sound like an unholy midpoint between Patsy Cline and Billie Holliday doesn’t do justice to the singularity of the sounds that emanate from her, but it might give you some idea of her combination of harrowing intensity and sweet mellifluousness. As steeped in tradition as it is likely to lapse into open-ended cacophony, her music is unpredictable but never alienating or obtuse.
While many of Holland’s recordings are austere and stripped-down affairs, placing focus on her voice and songwriting (both of which easily bear the scrutiny) her latest CD, Wine Dark Sea, is easily her most orchestrated since 2006’s Springtime Can Kill You. However, where that record has an almost Van Dyke Parks-style baroque quality to its arrangements and production, the new one is a jagged, spellbinding, sometimes terrifying sonic beast and her touring band proved itself more than up to the task of replicating and transcending the recordings in concert Saturday at Blueberry Hill’s tiny, underground Duck Room in St. Louis’ Loop neighborhood.
With an ability to groove worthy of comparison to “I’m Gonna Booglarize You, Baby”-era Captain Beefheart & His Magic Band or erupt into sheets of noise that would make mid-80s Sonic-Youth jealous, this band was just as likely to shift into chamber music mode, depending on the requirements of the song at hand. Holland herself seemed to revel in the controlled chaos, sometimes leading the musicians through tricky changes, sometimes allowing her juggernaut of a voice to simply surf along atop the shifting sounds. An unorthodox interpretation of the Everly Brothers’ “When Will I Be Loved?” was a highlight of the night, with her two guitarists singing Don and Phil’s parts while Holland added a third, higher harmony recalling Neil Young, over a brutalizing guitar arrangement that consciously channeled the early Velvet Underground.
Before unleashing her improbable larynx on a heart-stopping cover of Townes Van Zandt’s “Rex’s Blues,” Holland glowingly described Van Zandt as not merely a singer-songwriter but closer to “a monster from another dimension.” To which I can only counter with something like, “look who’s talking, lady.” Jolie Holland is the kind of artist whose stature will only grow with time, and mark my words, seeing her now will one day be akin to having caught Tom Waits’ act in ’75. Future generations of music fans will doubtless be dumbfounded that she once regularly played moderately attended shows in tiny venues like the Duck Room for the mere price of $15 a ticket and enough gas to get you down the road.
Yeah, I went there.