Angel Olsen is an American singer-songwriter with a bit of edge who knows how to rock. I first came across her music when she released her 2016 album “My Woman”, which met with a lot of acclaim. I liked her voice – a combination of vulnerable and defiant – and the guitars. The song that I really loved was “Sister”, a seven minute epic which built slowly and ended with a guitar workout that had a lot of Neil Young at his most raucous in it. Around that time I bought a ticket for one of her concerts but then realised I was going on holiday at that time, so missed her. I didn’t listen to her music all that much after that, except “Sister”, which made it onto quite a few of my playlists. But I had a lot of respect for what she was doing.
Last year she released “All Mirrors”. It’s another album about a relationship break up and is pretty hard-hitting. It was in a lot of top tens and twenties in the end-of-year lists. But I struggled to get into it at first. I’m not sure what it was – maybe a bit overblown sonically, and a lot of violins, which sometimes rings alarm bells for me. But I bought a couple of tickets for her show at the Hammersmith Apollo, and Jon G took up the other. I gave it another few listens before the show and thought, I’ve underestimated this a bit. It could be good live.
And you know what, it was amazing! It was such a good show. There was a real power in the music, an intensity and beauty too. And those violins (in fact one violin and one cello) were great, adding an extra dimension to the music. Angel’s voice was scintillating and at times very moving. There was an anthemic quality to a lot of the tunes, especially those from “All Mirrors”, which took up the first half of the show, with a couple of slower ones at the end. Jon suggested a connection which hadn’t occurred to me, which was the Cocteau Twins, a Scottish duo whose heyday was the 1980s. They too had a big sound, with Elisabeth Fraser’s vocals floating rather ethereally over it all. Angel Olsen’s sound is a bit sharper and harder, but I got what Jon was thinking about. The title song “All Mirrors”, which was second in the set, was perhaps the best example.
I was reminded a little, too, of Sharon van Etten, in her new, rocky mode. But Angel was less flashy and a bit deeper. She was also genuinely pleased and even overawed at playing the Apollo. Highlights for me were “New Love Cassette” and “All Mirrors” at the beginning; “Lark” (which opens the new album); a rather lovely, almost solo, keyboard piece called “Tonight” which Angel dedicated to me; the feisty “Shut Up Kiss me” off “My Woman” which was greeted ecstatically by the crowd; and… I’m so glad… “Sister”. What a version! A true epic. I loved every minute of it.
So, I thought the concert would be good, but it was better than that. It was brilliant. Without ever being overstated, Angel Olsen and her excellent band made powerful, anthemic music. A classic example of the live performance really bringing out the best in the songs. A great start to my concert-going in 2020!