There hasn’t been much of 2019 yet, but I predict that last night’s Julia Holter gig at the Tuning Fork in Auckland, NZ will surely remain a contender for show of the year, and definitely takes that title so far. Bristolian punks IDLES set a very high bar a few nights earlier with a triumphant performance at the same venue, but the intricate musicality, attention to detail, and flawless delivery made Holter’s set one of the best musical experiences I’ve had in a very long time.
Of course, the potential for the night’s greatness was already clear long before the start... laid out in full on Holter’s brilliant Aviary released last year. The material on the double album is already stellar. Yet I was still curious as to how an album that lengthy, atmospheric, and densely orchestrated would be recreated or reinterpreted on as intimate a stage as the Tuning Fork. Having resisted looking at recent set-lists from past shows online... I wasn’t sure if the L.A. artist would tackle the more abstract, impressionistic pieces on Aviary, or stick to the more direct (by comparison) and rhythmic songs from its predecessor, 2015’s breakthrough Have You In My Wilderness.
Before I got to find out, I caught the opening set from Ryan McPhun of Auckland’s The Ruby Suns. His backing tracks were nicely produced electronic-tinged bedroom pop, but his performance was undermined by what seemed to be an off vocal night. He often seemed to have trouble hitting notes, and things weren’t helped by a terrible mix and dodgy microphone, which buried both the vocals and guitar.
Things were helped when he was joined onstage by drummer Daniel Ward and bassist James Milne, a.k.a. Lawrence Arabia (I knew I’d seen McPhun’s blue jumpsuit somewhere before, worn by Milne at a gig), but overall it was an unfortunately underwhelming opening.
Thankfully no such sound issues plagued the headliner. In fact, the sound for Julia Holter was fantastic - as it needed to be, considering the nature of the music and the blend of instruments on stage.
Holter, standing dead centre at her keyboard, was joined by Devin Hoff (double bass), Corey Fogel (drums), Dina Maccabee (violin), Tashi Wada (bagpipe/synths), and Sarah Belle Reid (trumpet and brass), the six-piece core of the band behind Aviary. As this lineup predicted, and to my pleasant surprise, the set was almost entirely drawn from that album, and the group didn’t shy away at all from delivering its lengthiest, dreamiest and most densely orchestrated pieces note-perfectly.
Both the ambition of the set and the degree to which Holter and her band triumphed with this material blew me away. The first five songs, all from Aviary, included the mellow tracks Chaitius and Colligere, both built on beautifully sparse and perfectly judged contributions from all players.
I was particularly taken by the rich soundscapes which the relatively small group so perfectly recreated in a live setting. The trumpet and horn blended fantastically with the violin, both set adrift in gorgeous reverb and utilised for all sorts of different sonic effects. When the bagpipes were thrown into the mix, the wall of sound went from dreamy and ambient to full and dramatic quickly.
Voce Simul stripped things down to just Holter with her piano and abstract vocalisations and some beautiful textural trumpet playing. Underneath The Moon opened with all players improvising free sounds on their instruments before developing into a tribal stomp that showcased the brilliance of the restrained drummer and percussionist. It was one of those stages that glowed with the presence of six musicians perfectly in control of their individual and collective craft, with Holter standing in the middle like a calm ringleader.
Her vocals were as compelling as on record, judging when to hit high notes and when to slide unexpectedly around them. I was surprised at how well she pulled off the more “unusual” phonetic vocal performances from Aviary.
Only four songs were played that predated the recent album, all of which came from 2015’s Have You In My Wilderness, and which served as nice breaks of more direct songwriting - particularly Silhouette and the audience favourite Feel You, one of many set highlights.
Julia Holter’s set has it all - the unique material, the combination of incredible individual musicians, the masterful musical planning and arrangements, the sheer ambition to play this material in these arrangements, and most importantly the sense that, just as on record, Holter has the ability to realise her ambitious musical visions exactly as she wants them to be, down to the smallest detail.
After closing with I Shall Love 2 and a warm speech of appreciation for her band and the audience, Holter returned for two more treats - the eerie stunner Why Sad Song and the gorgeous Betsy On The Roof, which closed the night with Holter’s greatest vocal-and-piano performance of one of her best melodies.
- I Shall Love 1
- Les Jeux To You
- Voce Simul
- Underneath The Moon
- I Would Rather See
- Feel You
- Words I Heard
- Sea Calls Me Home
- I Shall Love 2
- Why Sad Song
- Betsy On The Roof