After missing Julia Holter’s set at the Lodge Room back in March, I was grateful to have a second chance to see her and the band go another round in LA, again in support of her imaginative latest album Aviary (one of my favorite albums of 2018). The whole concert seemed to be an end-of-tour victory lap for a band who obviously loved the labyrinthine sound worlds they were creating together. Julia seemed especially joyous and full of life, completely in command during the music, but lightheartedly conversing and joking with her hometown audience, which she revealed to include some of her personal friends and family.
The live performance effectively captured the sprawling intensity of the record, which weaves together strands of avant-garde composition, spiritual jazz, ambient music, and (dare-I-say) progressive rock, into 90 minutes of intricate art pop. The music transformed seamlessly from floating dreaminess to passionate catharsis. Besides Julia on vocals and keyboard, the sextet consisted of the tight, exploratory band that played on the album, including Dina Maccabee (violin, vocals), Devin Hoff (upright bass), Corey Fogel (drums), Sarah Belle Reed (trumpet), and Tashi Wada (synthesizer, bagpipes). Though the musicians had music stands to help follow the complex arrangements, they were fully in flow with the moment, never sounding rigid. The jazz-influenced rhythm section was constantly finding new ways to develop the beat in expressive ways. The deep timbre of the upright bass was perfect for the music’s loping grooves and added a nice acoustic resonance to the overall sound; there were even some great free sections where the bassist really got to stretch out lyrically. The violinist and trumpeter each added a lot to the music both melodically and texturally, running their instruments through laptops to add reverbs, harmonizers, and loops (or samples?) to make their dramatic swells sound more like an orchestra than two people. Tashi Wada would occasionally join in on these swells with his bagpipes, but mostly used the futuristic sounds of his Prophet 6 synthesizer to fill in the spaces. With so many instruments, I was actually quite astounded at how great the sound was throughout the show. The mix was perfect and every instrument was EQ’d just right for maximum clarity, without even a hint of the muddiness expected from most live performances. This made a bit more sense when Holter introduced Kenny Gilmore, the co-producer and engineer on her album, as the live sound engineer for the night. With arrangements this dense and complex, it’s invaluable to have an engineer and musicians that know the music forwards and backwards.
The set began triumphantly with “I Shall Love 1”, which consists of group vocals singing “I shall love!” in unison over a dynamic wall of sound. While the setlist was largely comprised of Aviary compositions, the few tracks from Have You in My Wilderness sprinkled throughout the set actually fit quite smoothly, serving as welcome reprieves between the relatively abstract and impenetrable (yet rewarding) tracks on the new album. The highlight of these had to be “Silhouette”, with its melodic bassline, lush strings and plodding rhythms underlying Holter’s surreal storytelling. About a third into the set, everyone except Holter and Reed left the stage, leaving the duo to perform a celestial rendition of “Voce Simul” in which Reed’s ambient trumpet sounds added to the ethereal atmosphere of Holter’s piano and vocals. Other highlights include the lush, fluttering beauty of “Words I Heard”, the strangely disjointed “Underneath the Moon”, and the slow drama of “Colligere”. The setlist was effectively bookended by the joyfully climactic “I Shall Love 2”, before going into an encore including the catchy “Goddess Eyes I” (from Ekstasis) and fan favorite “Betsy on the Roof” (from Have You in My Wilderness).