Words by Brian O’Neill | Photos by Tashina Byrd
Al Jorgensen famously crooned that “Everyday is Halloween” on an early single. It’s a safe bet that sentiment was true for everyone in the Union Transfer, on and off the stage, so imagine the excitement when the calendar confirmed it actually was All Hollows’ Eve! Flanked by a cellist dressed like a cat and a keyboardist dressed like a keyboardist, Ioanna Gika took center stage with resplendent, fair hair that flowed down to a gauzy dress that flowed down to the floor. That she wore a black long sleeve under the dress might have been a concession to the chilly near-November air but it was a perfect metaphor for a performance that seemed to seek out light amongst ethereal darkness. Her haunting voice might have lacked the range of Austra’s Katie Stelmanis but only so slightly, and comparisons to Zola Jesus are apropos. Playing songs culled from Thalassa, her debut that came out earlier this year, Gika’s emotive voice was a delicate, yet powerful force when contrasting against the sparse darkwave.
It was enthralling to watch Chelsea Wolfe playing an acoustic guitar and letting her poignant voice fill the Union Transfer. There was a figure to her right, nearly hidden without a spotlight and crouched down low, who adding extra instrumentation –keyboards, the dissonance of distorted electric guitars, whatever the song needed. But it was Wolfe, standing on a riser in the center of the stage that was lined with a wreath of tangled branches who was the focal point. It highlighted her desire to embrace the organic and natural.
Just like her earliest days, she shielded her vulnerability with her voice, her guitar, and little else. After a couple of albums that strayed from her roots, Birth of Violence seems like a step back to her singer-songwriter days and her live show offered confirmation and maybe validation. No matter how emotionally fragile she might have been, she laid herself bare and raw for all to see. It was brave and in its own way quite eloquent.
“Sick,” from her third album, fit in sonically and thematically with the new material that surrounded it, showing exactly how much she is emulating her past. You could hear a pin drop while she played “Be All Things,” her falsetto streaming across the room like the rays of light that radiated past her into the darkened venue. It was a transcendent moment in a show that had no shortage of such epiphanies and it didn’t matter that she had to stop and reset halfway through the song. She played two covers this evening. First, she performed a truncated but soaring version of Roky Erickson’s “Night of the Vampire” and later she offered a somber take on “Woodstock.” Needless to say, the garden that she wants to get back to is markedly different than the one that Joni Mitchell envisioned.
But it was the material from Birth of Violence that carried the evening. The melodramatic reading of “Little Grave;” the sonic ebullience of “Deranged for Rock & Roll;” the minor piano chords that emphasized the tragedy that was “Preface to a Dream Play,” which saw her repeating the closing refrain “Hell is on Earth” with her face in her hands proved that there were a great many moods and subtleties on her latest release. Wolfe might return to the metallic darkgaze of Abyss and Hiss Spun, but it won’t be as heavy as this. It just can’t be.
She literally returned to her past for the encore with a couple of older songs. The way she harmonized with herself, during “The Way We Used To” resembled a Gothic pre-antebellum spiritual while “Halfsleeper,” from her debut that was released nearly a decade ago, was beautiful and elegant, with just enough melancholy to fit in with the rest of the set and perfectly end it. Despite embracing her roots, Birth of Violence is no mere nostalgia trip. Instead, it can be viewed as a new era, where her unorthodox folk traditions are informed by her more recent unorthodox post-metal excursions. Onstage, practically by herself, it’s unquestionable that the sum of those parts are something brand new.