Last night Jolie Holland played at The Basement in York. A small and low-hanging room with a bar attached, located underneath the City Screen Picturehouse, the venue – which once seemed to focus on comedy, with intermittent appearances from across the more marginal performing arts – is showing renewed vigour as a place for foreign cinema and international music. It was fantastic to have Jolie in the city, in a performance coordinated by the Brudenell Social Club and Please Please You.
Jolie was supported first by Sam Airey, a Welsh singer-songwriter who co-runs Hide & Seek Records out of Leeds. Airey closed his short set with a tender rendition of Bruce Springsteen’s ‘No Surrender’ from Born in the U.S.A., sustaining the song with droning effects on the guitar. Next came Danni Nicholls, who impressed courtesy of her resonant voice and outgoing stage manner – managing to retain the good will of the audience in spite of her bold risk-taking, as she required them to sing then hum along to her compositions.
Blending elements of soul, country, and pop rock into a thoroughgoing take on Americana, Nicholls is set to release her second album, Mockingbird Lane, later this year; although copies were available last night, and have already been distributed digitally to fans eager to pay for the experience. Helping to fund her work through PledgeMusic – which rejects the ‘crowdfunding’ label, terming itself instead a ‘Direct-to-Fan’ platform – as with her 2013 debut A Little Redemption, Mockingbird Lane was recorded in Nashville, over the course of January. The album features Nashville stalwarts Chris Donohue, Will Kimbrough, and Stephen Leiweke, plus guest spots from Billy Livsey and Brandy Zdan.
Given the somewhat cramped confines of The Basement, Jolie Holland was happily without any semblance of a full band. Instead, she played seated alongside Stevie Weinstein-Foner, who provided us guitar, harmonium, vocal accompaniment, and his own brand of ‘sit-down’ comedy, with which Jolie freely and merrily engaged.
This show was plenty fun. Jolie’s voice, intuitive as ever, was in fine form, and with Weinstein-Foner she was wonderfully relaxed, expounding between songs on wide-ranging subjects: from New Orleans, Hurricane Katrina, and the presence of bald eagles, to navigational escapades, Townes Van Zandt (Weinstein-Foner recalled the joke told by Townes on the Live at the Old Quarter, Houston, Texas double album, which has two drunks debating whether the orb in the sky is the sun or the moon – only for a third to appear and equivocate, protesting ‘Aw I don’t know man, I ain’t from this neighborhood’), and Julian of Norwich, whose church the pair visited before their show on Monday.
Demonstrating a diverse setlist, ‘Honey Girl’, the penultimate track on 2011’s Pint of Blood, opened the performance – though the song was momentarily interrupted by a wilting microphone stand, which saw Jolie’s microphone repeatedly droop just out of reach. ‘Gold and Yellow’ from the same album followed; and then ‘On and On’, the first song on Wine Dark Sea.
Interviewing Jolie earlier this week, I asked about the challenge of transposing the songs on Wine Dark Sea – which were recorded with three additional guitarists, a bassist, and two drummers plus other instruments – to a live setting. Jolie responded, ‘Many of the songs are composed as templates. I want the performance to be of the moment’. The structural integrity of Jolie’s music, her strength as a composer and her ability to fluidly navigate any given song was evident throughout ‘On and On’: though Jolie suggested that the nature of the performance meant this was the quietest we would ever hear her play, the piece maintained its rumbling, pleading, openhearted intensity.
Taking now from the earlier part of her career, from Springtime Can Kill You came a warm interpretation of the album-closer ‘Mexican Blue’. There was a lithe rendering of ‘Old Fashioned Morphine’ from Escondida – Jolie joking that despite the frequency of her requests, there never seems to be much morphine on offer. And then from The Living and the Dead the cool ‘Palmyra’, ‘Only a few old petals left / On the rose that touched your hand / My little heart is a graveyard / It’s a no man’s land’.
Lou Reed’s death occurred approaching two years ago now, but for an artist who gave such a wealth of great songwriting, and whose music continues to prove foundational for so many listeners – who, moreover, came to stand casually as something like the artistic conscience of the music business; remaining vital as a musician, as a bandleader and champion of new talent, and as a critic – his loss is barely sensible and still seeping in. Upon his death back in 2013, David Ivar/Black Yaya wrote a ‘Song for Lou Reed’. Having supported and played on stage with Jolie over a couple of tour dates last week, last night Jolie and Weinstein-Foner performed Black Yaya’s fond commemoration.
‘First Sign of Spring’, again from Wine Dark Sea, was another of the evening’s highlights, building to a winding climax. It was succeeded by ‘Route 30’, and with ‘Tender Mirror’ some of Jolie’s beautifully clear whistling, as Weinstein-Foner took up the harmonium. After an adept cover of Townes Van Zandt’s ‘You Are Not Needed Now’, from High, Low, and In Between – ‘I was thinkin’ hang on, man, something’s wrong / Your blues they do seem to be gone / Heaven ain’t bad but you don’t get nothing done’ – the show came to a close with ‘Mexico City’, the Beat Generation-cum-James Joyce lead track from The Living and the Dead. The evening’s curfew had already passed, but this was a fitting way to end such an enjoyable and absorbing event.
Jolie Holland plays tonight at LEAF in Liverpool; at Ramsgate Music Hall on Friday; and on Saturday in Belgium at Gentse Feesten 2015.