Julia Holter / Lucrecia Dalt
Village Underground; London, UK

[11-11-2013]

After spending the last few months immersed in Lucrecia Dalt’s sound, I was intrigued to find out how the music would translate onstage. Her latest album, Syzygy, sounds like it was custom designed for private playback in an area no bigger than the Barcelona flat in which it was recorded, so I wondered how that was going to unfurl in front of a large audience. As it happens, the Village Underground was the perfect venue for exploring that — it has a dank ambiance that sits wonderfully within the space that Julia Holter would later describe as a “trapezoid.” The stage was arranged with two mics, Dalt’s signature moogerfrooger midi murf and a home-made foot controller that channeled her bass as she approached the audience. I felt a heightened level of tension as the Colombian musician stood beneath the venue spots and Simon asked, “What do you think she will open with?” I lost all train of thought. The main hall was just beginning to fill as Dalt meandered into “Waste of Shame,” the first of three songs taken from Commotus.

As the opening number unraveled into a longer, more expressive version of the original, it became more apparent Dalt’s compositions are never static. Her music doesn’t exist as a singular moment that’s unmodified or void of alteration as she moves each number into a different living space. The tracks, under the names they have been given on record, felt like guidelines more than anything else, and this lent each rendition an alternate dimension in which to roam — a license to remain unadulterated and free while taking on new sonic forms. Even as a running trilogy, “Inframince,” “Soliloquios,” and “Vitti” were adapted for the stage, it was as though they were being presented not as songs but ideas continually in motion. Despite how personal and captivating they were to hear live, I was forced to think about my experience with these songs and the way it transforms over time. Our perception of music is, after all, cradled by the environment in which it is heard.

That sensation was less evident during the Commotus material, wherein “Turmoil” played out as a stunning highlight that was immediately more powerful but perhaps less thought provoking. “I’ve been doing business with the devil”, that memorable line, which sounds so poignant on record, was given a fresh sense of urgency with a backdrop of slowly pulsating beams as the artist stood with her hair draped across her face. It’s difficult to say where the suspense was grounded, but I was surprised at how affecting the music was, considering the form it took. Dalt’s intentions appeared to echo in the set closer “Mirage,” during which she poured over “absurdity in abstraction” and “contemplation.” Indeed, it was only while reflecting on the show that it dawned on me just how bold the performance was — but hey, it’s been a great year for Dalt. She has consistently proven to exceed every sense of expectation.

In contrast to Lucrecia Dalt’s soft-spoken seduction, Julia Holter wasn’t shy when it came to sharing her thoughts that evening. A third of the way through “In the Green Wild” she casually griped, “There’s a fly on my keyboard,” jabbing a run of bum notes on her Nord Stage 2 in an effort to scare off the gatecrasher that had just touched down on her piano. Clearly the insect had good taste, having been entranced by the floating charms of opener “Maxim’s I” and then quickly pulled in by the cloistered discord of its followup. But even if it momentarily distracted the object of its unrequited affection, the song barely suffered, carried and magnified as it was by Holter’s band, who over the last few months of touring have quickly become her not-so secret weapon. Consisting of drums, saxophone, violin, and a cello that, for “Green Wild,” was moonlighting as a double bass, they painlessly settled into the de-industrialized warehouse that was the Village Underground’s main hall, filling its cavernous space with aural torrents as strident as they were elegant.

You might not expect that coming into a Holter gig; having heard the ornate, confidential nature of her records, you’d be forgiven for supposing her sets were cyphered, semi-withdrawn affairs that implied more than they explicitly revealed, teasing at the emotion underlying her music but never fully delegating it to our voyeurism. Well, you’d be wrong, because with the brunt of the four well-oiled minstrels behind her, the strains of Loud City Song and Ekstasis assumed a rancor and febrility that imbued them with a volatile dimension. “Horns Surrounding Me” became an emergency scramble through crashes of sax and violin, the ghostly arpeggios of “Marienbad” were intersected by walls of turbulent improvisation, and “Maxim’s II” throttled towards a near-cataclysmic ending, easily upping its recorded version in terms of riotous abandon.

In the midst of these heightened energetics was Holter herself, her voice keeping an imperturbable clarity and poise that levitated above her band’s animation. And just because they were in a bullish mood didn’t mean that she or they neglected more intimate material. Barbara Lewis’ “Hello Stranger” was the perfect foil for the labyrinthine rendition of “Four Gardens” that preceded it, the cover’s delicacy translated into waves of fragile euphoria, borne out by Holter’s body language. Equally penetrating was set closer “In the Same Room,” the haunted estrangement of its lyrics and instrumentation proving a hit with that same fly, who’d been circling incessantly around the stage for the entire set, and who probably wasn’t the only new convert to what was some intoxicatingly rarefied, yet powerful, music.

[Photos: Baron von Kissalot]