Listening to Jolie Holland’s latest album, The Living and the Dead, in the hours leading up to her SOhO show last Tuesday night, I wondered how her stage performance would hold up in light of this more refined recording and the backing of a new band. While The Living may have polished up her contemporary appeal a little (and the band eased through what was essentially their third performance together), Holland proved herself to be as endearing as ever. But should we have expected anything else?
One of Holland’s greatest strengths as an artist has always been her staunch musical conviction. Just like the songs she pens and the vivid imagery she provokes, Holland’s live show keeps the listener on the edge of his or her seat. Whether she is banging out chords on her vintage Epiphone, clutching a tambourine while nestling up to the mike, seducing the crowd from behind her piano, or hacking into a homemade box fiddle, Holland never fails to keep her audience guessing. And Tuesday’s set was no exception.
Across the course of the evening, Holland constructed a program that drew from a vast emotional spectrum. Songs moved from the stark reality of “Corrido Por Buddy” and “Old-Fashioned Morphine” to more spirited offerings like “Your Big Hands” and the atmospheric “Fox in a Hole.” And sometimes she even managed to cross the gamut in the space of single song, such as she did on “Palmyra.” While the band offered Holland plenty of room to breathe, the most poignant moments of the night came when things were stripped way down.
With only Rachel Blumberg rattling away behind her on the drums, Holland manned the fiddle for a deeply inflicting rendition of “Mad Tom of Bedlam.” Its docile and sinister tones laid the perfect foundation for Holland to drawl her eerie tale. Likewise, alone onstage with just her guitar, Holland offered an equally noteworthy rendition of Will Oldham’s “One with the Birds” during the encore. Perhaps on record Holland is a gem that shines more immaculately than ever, but onstage she is a true diamond in the rough.