Julia Holter Cages Chaos in Brooklyn

The L.A.-based art pop chanteuse delivers a performance for the ages at Warsaw

Photo by Justin D. Joffe

There’s a genuine thrill to be had from watching a performance that’s bigger than the space it occupies. The cultural history of New York has been illuminated by such moments—Coltrane sets at the Village Vanguard, the New York Dolls af Mercer Arts Center, Madonna at the Palladium. The ultimate ‘you had to be there’ moment can also be disingenuous, too, when massive shows in tiny rooms are so often plotted as marketing stunts, algorithmically-orchestrated FOMO moments to stimulate supply and demand.

Despite that unfortunate trend, Julia Holter managed put on one of those legendary performances last Friday anyway when she played Warsaw, a Polish social club-turned-music venue in Greenpoint known for hosting indie rock shows in its 1,000-capacity hall. Holter’s set wasn’t just notable for the size of the crowd—though the hall was pretty much packed—but for her ambitious, daring live ensemble in a space known to host programming far less adventurous.

Touring off last year’s epic, experimental, avant-pop opus Aviary, Holter expanded and improvised on songs old and new with majority of Aviary’s players backing her up as a quintet. With Dina Maccabee on viola and violin, Devin Hoff on double bass, Corey Fogel on percussion, Sara Belle Read on trumpet and flugelhorn, and Tashi Wada on synth and bagpipes, Holter had all the room she needed to let Aviary songs breathe, and revist classics from her back catalog with fresh new arrangements.

Throughout Holter’s set the audience was reminded that we would typically only catch a performance of such fidelity, scope and daring at one of the city’s more pristine acoustic spaces or concert halls. Holter vacillated between the intricate chamber pop leanings of her earlier records and Aviary’s free-jazz, multi-movement odyssey of sonic sensations, pushing her group and the standing-room crowd to hang on and stay present.

Photo by Justin D. Joffe

Holter has said that Aviary’s title comes from a line by Lebanese poet Etel Adnan (“ I found myself in an aviary full of shrieking birds“), and this concept of chaos pervading day-to-day life is explored through every minute the album’s 90-minute length. At the start of her generous, near-two hour set, Holter took the stage solo to play Aviary’s “In Gardens’ Muteness” on keys, silencing the standing room only crowd in rapt attention. “Lover/Frozen still in the fishbowl/What moves you?” she intoned in serene invocation. “The ride is long/The story old.”

The ensemble then assembled onstage for Aviary’s opening number, “Turn the Light On”, an assault of ecstatic sound that sounds like wind opening of some celestial gate.

Holter’s compositions have previously found her compared to everyone from Kate Bush to Joanna Newsom, but, if threads of these songwriters with baroque leanings may have been teased out of her Holter’s older songs, the ambitiousness of Aviary rips apart any box she might once have been confined to. The unease at being able to codify Aviary’s more unapologetically experimental moments is soothed by watching this ensemble tease them out in front of a crowd, a reminder that Aviary was not conceived as some stitched-together sonic collage, but instead the sounds of a living, breathing group realizing a composer’s bold vision at the peak of her game.

It’s rare to see an artist touring their most ambitious work replicate the ‘difficult’ tracks live, but Holter and her ensemble rose to the challenge. The eight-minute, multi-movement sonic pastiche of “Chaitius” was not expected live, but Holter brought it to the stage in pristine dynamic range anyway—swelling, evaporating, and punctuating her words in all the right places.

Photo by Justin D. Joffe

“Chaitius” is an Old Occitan word for miserable, wretched people, but you needn’t know that to feel transcendently stunned by Holter’s performance. Her power to give our minds pause cannot be overstated in this present time, when the brightness on our screens is always up, when programmatic advertising and 24-hour-news cycle are constantly placing bids on the real estate of our minds.

Holter’s solution for this seems to pull inspiration from a vast variety of sources—she quotes a translation by the ancient Lesbos poet Sappho, whose writings chronicled a radical empathy and the importance of love as an actionable, visceral experience. Similarly, on “I Shall Love 2”, an Alice Coltrane riff is repurposed while the phrase “I Shall Love” is repeated in a looping echo as mantra. “In a lot of the songs when I mention love,” Holter has said about Aviary, “it’s about a seeking for compassion and humility in a world where it feels like empathy is always being tested.”

There was no testing of love at Warsaw that night, however. Coming from anyone else, a near two-hour set of complicated, knotty epics on a Friday night might push a crowd to restlessness, but Holter had a perfect command of the set’s flow. “Silhouette” and “Feel You” off of 2015’s fantastic Have You In My Wilderness were sprinkled in between the Aviary-heavy set to create a communal sensation of coming up for air after a deep swim.

“This is my first time in primeval light/Testing my moves out in the big room,” Holter sang on “Underneath the Moon.” “Words pour out/My holy body free/I repeat/That’s why I say/I repeat.” Fully aware of her agency and empathy, this line made clear that Holter’s performances around Aviary are best understood an extension of the work itself, reminding anyone who listens closely that by putting sounds out into the air, you will them into existence.

Photo by Justin D. Joffe

By the time Holter thanked the crowd and launched into her second encore of Wilderness track “Betsy on the Roof”, it was midnight and there was still nary a smartphone’s glow anywhere in the crowd.

“Betsy” suggests a narrative wherein Holter’s titular loved one has scaled a roof in an act of longing desperation, lamenting her inability to control the weather, wondering about the power of clouds and asking for “the answer.”

“You know the answer, Betsy,” sang Holter in repetition, again as mantra, while the Aviary ensemble adds some atonal freakout runs that swell beneath the lullaby of Holter’s outro. And with that, she sent us off into the night carrying a final reminder that we hold the power to make both our own divinity and our own calm, to cage chaos in those moments where things seem out of hand by teasing out the love that’s buried in just about everything.


VIDEO: Julia Holter – Inside Aviary (Official Film)


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Justin Joffe

Justin Joffe writes about music, art, technology, and other cultural treasures. Reach him on Twitter @joffaloff.

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