Long Applause in Leipzig: Julia Holter Live

Posted by on November 7, 2013

Leipzig is a small enough place that a tourist can sometimes be surprised to stumble haphazardly into a previously unseen music club while walking around on a Friday night. I had been kicking myself all week because I had to miss Julia Holter‘s performance at the socialist architectural treasure, the Volksbühne in Berlin. Yet here I was in the student-artist neighborhood of Connewitz, Leipzig on Friday the 25th of October, and the cavernous, timeworn UT Connewitz offered me a second chance to see Holter on tour in support of her new album, Loud City Song. My dear friends at KZSU had alerted me to her 2013 release on Domino earlier this year, and their recommendations were born out by repeated listening over this past summer. Elitists can appreciate the heady amalgam of instrumentation and styles in evidence, while her voice and the way she reveals hooks in plain sight like an illusionist have massive crossover appeal.

Lucrecia Dalt of Spain opened the show. Icy, frigid loops and bleeps set the mood somewhere in between Thom Yorke and Motion Sickness of Time Travel. It was a strangely appropriate atmosphere for the venue, which the audience did not quite fill. The space between every other person in the crowd allowed the sparse tones and eerie echoes to engulf the audience.

Maybe I’m just so used to American bars, but I was fairly surprised to see that most of the Leipzigers sat on the floor while waiting for Holter to take the stage. I’ve seen people sit down on the ground while waiting for performances at festivals, but that’s understandable after a long day of standing around. But for a Friday night gig with one opening act?

Julia and her band appeared onstage with neither pomp nor spectacle, and many in the audience didn’t notice anything until they started playing. The five-piece – Julia on keys, Danny Meyer on saxophone, Corey Fogel on drums, Andrew Tholl on violin, and Chris Votek on cello – opened with the lead single from Holter’s new album, “In the Green Wild,” which was an appropriate introduction to those in the audience hearing Julia’s playful and bubbly, yet dense music for the first time. Drawing equally on jazz and synth pop, Holter’s cutesy, Parisian-esque, cut-out art-pop breathes contrast by incorporating bendy noise into skeletal versions of Kate Bush anthems.

IMG_9544(1)Early in the set, Julia shared with the audience a wide-eyed touring observation: “I hear this was the first cinema in Germany.” She was close – UT Connewitz was the first cinema in Saxony. “We’re from LA. The oldest things we have there are 50 or 60 years old. It’s nice to be here. It feels like we’re in ruins.”

Julia cycled through most of the rhythm-oriented (and less ambient-leaning) songs from the new record, like the cemetery drone disco “Horns Surrounding Me,” and the warped, carnival-esque “Maxim’s II.”

Holter was in a great mood that night. While unabashedly clutching her own glass of red, she took a moment to tenderly introduce one of the newer songs. “This song is about honesty. Enjoying an honest day,” she said. “Taking a walk; having a glass of wine.” While her music has always been artsy, I’ve thought for a while now that her voice sounds like an American version of Stina Nordenstam, and perhaps this was most apparent here as the band made its way through the ballad.

Though the set certainly focused on The Loud City Song material, Holter also threw in a healthy dose of 2012’s Ekstasis. At one point in the evening, she revealed that it was the first time she was playing her keyboard – probably the result of the not-so-glamorous life of touring. “I shouldn’t have told you that,” she laughed. “It’s not bad… I just need to tame it.”

Saxophone player Danny Meyer shared with me after the show how strange it seems that the jazz community remains so insular and unwilling to bridge into pop or ambient worlds. It’s no surprise that there isn’t a large community out there dipping jazz into noise, tossing it with ambient, and funneling it through a pop filter. What Julia and her band does is indeed special.

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Julia noted before the band launched into the explosive maelstrom of “Maxim’s II,” “I really like how Germans give long applause,” and her smile seemed to sing, “you know how to make an artist feel good.” The buzz of Julia’s joy continued into the vocoder-tinged encore of “Goddess Eyes.” The gauzy, nostalgic head nod ended the show on a soothing, pleasant note.

Like Julia’s music, Leipzig is a city of seemingly opposing forces. On one hand, the city sustains a thriving art community, a storied music history, and a new home for alternative culture. On the other hand, many Leipzigers cling to small-town values, complain about the local University’s glass auditorium, and fight the big city influences from places like Berlin. L:ikewise, Julia’s music embraces the present while fighting the rush of modernism. And she does it with a uniquely individual toolset.

Set list:

1. “Green Wild”
2. “Maxims I”
3. “Horns Surrounding Me”
4. “Marienbad”
5. “Four Gardens”
6. “City Appearing”
7. “This is a True Heart”
8. “Maxims II”
9. “In the Same Room”
10. “Goddess Eyes” (Encore)

[Photos by Laura Figueroa]