A few hours before Monday’s show at Strange Matter, I went for a long run down Grove Avenue with this weekend’s episode of This American Life. Titled “Secret Identity,” the show included a lengthy segment about people afflicted with a rare psychiatric condition called delusional disorder — a distant cousin of schizophrenia that causes otherwise-high-functioning people to convince themselves of fictional yet totally plausible delusions. This was either the exact right or exact wrong way to prepare for seeing Angel Olsen perform. That’s because, for entire sections of her set, which followed enjoyable opening performances by Richmond’s own Nelly Kate (who I’ll be posting about separately) and Chicago-based Pillars and Tongues, I thought Olsen was staring directly at me.
We’re talking whole songs here — seemingly interminable 3- and 4-minute stretches during which it felt for all the world like I was engaged in a staring contest with this person whose voice was busy doing phenomenal, acrobatic things while her eyes stayed perfectly fucking still. It was crazy. Like, legitimately crazy; at the time, I couldn’t help remembering how This American Life said that thinking a famous person is fixated on you is one of the most common manifestations of delusional disorder. I started questioning myself… ‘Is she really looking in my direction?’ ‘Are the stage lights creating some sort of optical illusion?’ ‘Is something interesting going on behind me?’ ‘Have I finally lost it completely?’
As it turns out, I hadn’t lost it, and I’m not the only one who has found this to be a defining aspect of her live show. Imagine my relief when I discovered this Nashville Scene interview, the intro to which includes the following passage:
Like the greats that came before, she has an innate ability to make you think she’s singing directly to you, no matter where you are in the room. Maybe it’s the white-witch stare, cold and sultry at the same time? Whatever it is, it stopped us and the rest of the audience dead in our tracks.
While I don’t love that “white-witch” language, the rest is dead on. I’d compare it to the Bill Clinton effect — that thing where a particularly charismatic person can make you feel like the two of you are the only people in a crowded room — except that Olsen wasn’t being schmoozy or political. She was being commanding. Commanding attention, commanding silence (the audience was so quiet you could hear every single electronic explosion that some impossibly inconsiderate arcade user was setting off in Strange Matter’s back corridor).
Between Olsen’s eye contact and the video game sounds coming from the back of the room, it may seem like distraction ruled the evening, but it’s just the opposite. I can’t remember being so focused at a concert. Olsen’s presence and gymnastic voice were completely hypnotic, and I thought my insides were going to fall out onto the floor during “Tiniest Seed.” It was just so beautiful and raw and, thanks to Olsen’s control over the environment, I was present in a way that made the song much more powerful.
This is no small achievement. Live performances — music, theater, whatever — have always involved the terrifying tightrope walk of maintaining a constant connection with an audience, but Olsen created an oasis of intense calm in an age in which attention spans are tiny and in-show cell phone behavior is becoming more disruptive by the day (you should have seen the dude at the National last night taking pictures with a flip phone like a foot away from Shuggie Otis’ face). I’m certainly not innocent, with my habit of periodically typing into the iPhone Notes application when I have a thought or impression I don’t want to forget. But I didn’t dare take notes when Olsen was on stage.
After all, she was looking right at me.
Check out the studio version of “Tiniest Seed” below, click here to buy her stunning full-length album Half Way Home, and visit her website to see if Olsen is coming to a venue near you. If she is, go.