When Julia Holter last played Gorilla in February 2016, she was touring her Have You in My Wilderness album, an unexpectedly poppy proposition relative to her previous work. Almost inevitably, her 2018 follow-up Aviary has taken a swerve into left-field again, though that’s not to say it’s any less marvellous, simply less immediate.
Holter wanders on to stage and starts fiddling with the music stand lamps with such a complete lack of ceremony that it takes a moment to clock that she’s not a roadie. Then, within moments, her solo performance of new song In Gardens’ Muteness has the audience spellbound. Hers is a heck of a gift.
From thereon in she brings out her full five-strong band, Nominally, Holter is a solo singer-songwriter but these aren’t anonymous touring musicians. It’s the same band with which she records her albums and it shows in the tightness and telepathy between them. There’s a rich variety in the sound beyond yer bog-standard group, too. It’s not every day you hear bagpipes at a gig – unless you’re in a Wings tribute act, presumably.
The set-list doesn’t stray any further back than Holter’s two most recent albums but that’s no bad thing. It allows her more impressionist, painterly new songs such as Words I Heard, I Shall Love 1 and I Shall Love 2 to rub up alongside the glorious, evergreen Feel You, Sea Calls Me Home and Silhouette. Much of the newer material comes with an almost ecstatic charge of hope, while tonight’s encore, Betsy on the Roof, still feels oddly, obliquely devastating.
In less sure hands, Holter’s ‘Laura Nyro from Mars’ stylings, which don’t shy away from quoting Dante’s Inferno to a near-experimental backing, could be unrewarding to say the least. It succeeds because it’s genuinely inspired, and she wears her weighty influences so lightly, coming off between songs as almost goofily unassuming, tousling her mane and pulling unselfconscious expressions throughout. The whole band seem to share a genuine warmth as they demonstrate an agreeably unshowy accomplishment. Holter herself seems to be using her own voice more and more as another instrument to apply to the canvas. In some ways the power of her music, swelling from a minimal, joyous wash to a gigantic cacophony and back again, actually makes more sense in a live setting, and that’s certainly the case tonight.
Hooray then for the fact that Holter is still ploughing her own curious and fascinating furrow. Long may she continue to do so. She remains a rare and singular talent who belongs in the upper echelons of contemporary Artists to Keep Tabs On, and tonight’s show is yet more evidence of that fact.