JOLIE HOLLAND @ WALNUT ROOM | 5.26.12
After the applause died down following her final song last night, Jolie Holland offered to pay someone in the crowd for gas if they could drive her to her next gig in Colorado Springs. It's a shame that she was forced to ask, and also rather bittersweet for fans, knowing that she has sabotaged her career in some crucial ways that have placed her in this sort of predicament, while at the same time, giving us continued chances to be able see her perform in venues the size of living rooms and then be able chat with her immediately afterward.
Holland is arguably the best female singer-songwriter of her generation. Her early Escondida lyrics, like "When you arrived it was if we had both died and gone somewhere else," marked the beginning of a continually brilliant career. She belongs in the pantheon - if not near the importance -- of Americana that includes the likes of Jimmie Rodgers, Charlie Patton and Townes Van Zandt, a notion that's troubling to reconcile with how she's downsized from a career that pretty early on found her headlining rooms like the Boulder Theater to playing notably smaller venues, "Because," as she put it, "I've done a good job ruining my career. One of my biggest mistakes was not having a personal trainer."
Speaking with the smart, voluptuous, natural beauty after the show, the complex-and-torn Holland went on to call herself fat and sincerely claim that her weight, along with a tumultuous end to her connection with a longtime manager, is why she's universally praised by critics yet not experiencing the kind of success she deserves, the kind enjoyed by artists like Feist or Joanna Newsom.
Holland is a thoroughly American product, personally and artistically, having been raised in the deep South and then cultivating a fascinating solo career on both coasts over the last decade or so. She's as old-timey as modern American folk-rock gets, with her simple black dress, black stockings, black shoes for tapping and a single silver chain around her neck. Her Brooklyn-meets-Texas swagger, sway and desirable quiver bolster her harrowing songs of heartache, heavenly sweetness and sweet hatred. As she happily told the crowd last night, she's somewhere between Billie Holiday and Willie Nelson.
"Even her setup is burlesque," my companion observed as Holland elegantly curled up and down gently plugging her Les Paul into a tiny old amplifier and readied her mike at the Walnut Room in Denver on Saturday night.
Beginning with a bit of her beloved Syd Barrett, who she said put the "the" in "the Pink Floyd," and continuing into a few tunes from her dreamily twisted new album, Pint of Blood, Holland took the Walnut Room stage alone except for an electric guitar, forgoing all solos - handled often on her last two records by the inimitable Marc Ribot - and laid it all out, for better or worse.
Singing songs from all over her five-album solo catalog (none from her days with the Be Good Tanyas this time), Holland whistled beautifully and played violin capably (recalling a more rootsy, darker Andrew Bird). She won huge focus and applause with striking renditions of the bluesy "Old Fashioned Morphine" and the funeral pop of the New Orleans-themed "Palmyra," while a few other songs were abbreviated due to a mild cough, a few lyrics were forgotten, and her set was just over an hour with no encore.
No matter how you look at it, Holland deserves respect for driving solo across the country, literally selling the stack of CDs at her feet from stage, all while enjoying the support of -Anti, one of the most reputable labels in the country, with virtually no management or promotion.
Editor's Note: An earlier version of this review stated that Holland serves as her own manager and publicist, an assertion that the artist says is inaccurate. The aside -- which was added for clarification purposes during the editing process after a discussion with the writer -- has been stricken.
Personal Bias: Holland is the only artist, in any medium, I can think of who can make me star-struck. She is sort of a ghostlike figure in the music industry, almost universally hailed by critics and musicians but passing through tollbooths from state to state incognito, like a female Bob Dylan, if Dylan had opened his career with "John Wesley Harding."
Random Detail: The lyric, "If nothing else we've got that old second line," from "Palmyra" was explained by Holland to allude to a funeral jam session. She recently, along with a four-year-old, participated in a memorable "second line" for a goldfish. In giving a eulogy for the fish, the toddler delivered this accidentally poetic one-liner: "I loved the way you swam in puzzles."
By The Way: Telling the story of the American hikers who were imprisoned in Iran a few years ago and used the Dylan lyric, "Now is the time for your tears," from "The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll," as their code for a hunger strike, Holland did Dylan justice by covering that early '60s classic. It was powerful to say the least.
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