Have You Heard Jolie Holland Whistle?
Somerville, Mass. Jolie Holland has accumulated her fair share of critical acclaim over the last year, beginning with the release of Catalpa, a collection of home recordings and demos, and continuing with her proper debut, Escondida, put out by Anti/Epitaph in April. But as far as I can tell, critics have somehow neglected to mention one of Holland's most singular and striking talents: whistling.
I'm not talking about your basic walking-down-the-street-whistling-to-yourself kind of thing here. Several times during Holland's Somerville, Mass. concert last Wednesday night (June 2), the San Francisco-based singer/songwriter let loose with a whistle solo that was as gorgeously lonesome as a Chet Baker trumpet break. She would step back from the microphone, shut her eyes, and almost instantly, the club would go dead silent. Even the gabbers at the bar had to stop and listen to the high, otherworldly music Holland was making.
Of course, there was more to the show than impressive whistling. Despite the somewhat shaky Will Oldham cover ("One With the Birds") that opened the night, by the time Holland rolled into the jazzy train-hopping love story "Sascha," she appeared completely at ease onstage. And that was no mean feat, considering the odd layout of the venue, Johnny D's, which doubles as a restaurant. For some reason, the kitchen is directly behind the stage, meaning that throughout the performance, servers with plates of food were constantly walking in front of the musicians. But Holland ignored such distractions, instead preferring to lose herself in the music.
Accompanied by a stripped-down band consisting of just a guitarist and drummer,
she played an hour's worth of tunes from Catalpa and Escondida, establishing
herself as a riveting performer. On the achingly slow "Do
You?", Holland stretched out syllables beyond their logical breaking point, twisting
the song into a tight-wire act vocal performance. Even her band didn't seem to
know exactly where she was going, adding to the heightened sense of drama. So
entrancing was the song that the bluntness of the final line "You motherfucker,
I wanted you" was the aural equivalent of a door being slammed in your
face. All in all, a stunning performance.
Another highlight was the rollicking rendition of Catalpa's "All the Morning Birds," which was prefaced by a violin-led instrumental based on traditional Native American melodies. The band turned the song's complicated time signature and chord changes into a roller-coaster ride, with Holland's smoky vocals floating high above the fray. It was a powerful demonstration of the songwriter's ambition and daring her music may fall into the "roots" category, but she's by no means held back by such labels.
Perhaps the evening's only disappointment was the absence of a piano, which meant that two of Escondida’s standout tracks, the gospel-y "Amen' and the lovesick "Damn Shame," went unplayed. Maybe next time…. Tyler Wilcox [Tuesday, June 8, 2004]