Julia Holter had something of a commercial breakthrough last year. 2015’s ‘Have You In My Wilderness’ saw her consolidate half a decade or so of gigging and recording into a record that was her most accessible and rewarding. A Brighton show some two months after the album’s release saw her play to a small but packed out room, the Komedia, with an enthusiastic audience who clearly had no shortage of appreciation for her innovative mixture of avant-garde and pop music.
Almost a year to the day later, and Holter was back in Brighton again, this time at the far larger venue, Concorde 2. Although not quite sold out this time, the venue was full enough that there wasn’t much room to move around in the audience – an impressive feat for any artist yet to become a household name, especially given that it was a rainy Monday night. In addition to Holter’s keyboard, which is alternately battered and caressed throughout the show, her group had drums, double bass, viola and saxophone.
She made the bold choice to open her set with a new song, ‘Hejinian’. It’s an immediately affecting number that defies any expectations of a demure set of dream pop songs. Holter bashes her keyboard frantically throughout, with the rest of the band giving an equally impassioned performance. She followed this up with an inspired version of ‘Lucette Stranded On The Island’, a highlight from ‘Have You In My Wilderness’. It’s not much longer than the studio version, but experienced live it feels more freeform and Holter and her band take the song into an avant-garde direction, only hinted at in the studio take. It’s during these longer songs that Holter allows her band to really show off what they are made of.
Later on comes ‘Maxim’s II’, a throwback to her 2013 album ‘Loud City Song’. In the live setting, jazzy and slightly dissonant sax wails over walls of sound; the rhythm section providing a solid backing that still manages to dazzle throughout. Songs that are performed with precision on her albums are here presented, certainly during the show’s more expansive moments, in an exhilaratingly raw form; so much so that it can be something of a surprise of those familiar only with Holter’s studio work. It was tightly performed and well rehearsed, certainly, but there was a definite sense of a band of musicians pushing themselves to the edge of what they can do; and it was fascinating to watch. While ‘Hejinian’ hinted at the almost crazed energy the band can reach, it was during moments such as ‘Maxim’s II’ and fan-favourite ‘Betsy On The Roof’ that the group’s improvisational power is fully explored.
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It was not all jazzy, free-form workouts though. Much of the set stuck relatively closely to the meticulously structured sounds of the recorded source material. The melancholic sway of ‘Have You In My Wilderness’ (the album’s title track) mesmerises, while the crowd-pleasing encore of ‘Sea Calls Me Home’ provided the audience with the closest thing Holter has written to a sing-along. For long-term fans too, there were some unexpected moments during the show. Half way through her set, she performed a drastic rearrangement of ‘Horns Surrounding Me’ from ‘Loud City Song’. While the original had an almost bombastic drive to it, the new version shimmered with subtle swells, the percussive feel of the original traded in favour of a droning reverie. Musically, it was nearly unrecognisable from the original, the only real give away being the vocal melody and lyrics which remained unchanged. It was a refreshingly unique take on one of her most frequently performed songs.
Through her four albums, Julia Holter has consistently shown herself to be one of the most inventive and compelling songwriters operating right now. On record, she has an almost academic attitude to composition that has more in common with experimental classical than pop. While some of the scrupulous detail is lost in live performance, what is gained is a sense of white-knuckle excitement and improvisational glee. Her Brighton performance was the last date of a year-long world tour supporting ‘Have You In My Wilderness’ and she has said that the UK is unlikely to see her again until 2018. By that time, she is likely to have a new album of material to play. Until then, we’ll be anxiously awaiting her return.