Chelsea Wolfe performing at Great American Music Hall on January 11, 2013
Better than: Hearing a Kate Bush song in the local florist.
King Dude, the incongruously named vessel for gloomy Seattle troubadour T.J. Cowgill, and Los Angeles-based gothic chanteuse Chelsea Wolfe began their acoustic tour of the United States Friday night with an understated but extremely emotive performance at Great American Music Hall. For the draw of these artists, there isn’t a better-suited venue in San Francisco. The GAMH’s ornate columns and balconies seemed like an extension of the stage design as soft light in several shades of blue and red slowly swept the room throughout the night…
…Chelsea Wolfe appeared particularly ghostly. Her pale face was framed by straight, raven-black hair gently swaying above a faded red dress. She was flanked on either side by a violinist and keyboardist, and all the mic stands onstage were entwined with white roses. The contrast between Wolfe’s red dress, her band’s black garments, and the white roses created an especially noteworthy aesthetic pleasure. While other stage set-ups fail to impart any emotion with heavy-handed and garish props, Wolfe’s few colors and subtle decorations matched her performance wonderfully.
Not surprisingly, Wolfe’s set drew heavily from her recent acoustic album Unknown Rooms. Without the experimentation of some other records, this material showcases Wolfe’s tender and dejected ballads. Her somber vocals landed high up in the house mix, confirming the staggering presence of her voice. With remarkable similarity to even the slightest subtleties of her recording, Wolfe demonstrated impressive vocal abilities. For certain songs, Wolfe harmonized impressively with her violinist.
When Wolfe set her guitar down, she crossed her arms and swayed through an instrumental intro with her head down. Bending her fingers, clutching the mic, covering her mouth, Wolfe seemed to barely contain herself. With her eyes closed and her face contorted, she erupted into a particularly spirited performance. But in between songs, Wolfe was soft-spoken and humble with the audience, even going so far as to thank the crowd for its patience and for not yelling over the relatively quiet show. It was indeed impressive to see so many attendees standing and gazing intently in between songs without much chatter.
Towards the end of Wolfe’s set, Cowgill joined her for two songs. Droning keyboards swelled into a bleak ambiance and the pairing of Wolfe’s coos with Cowgill’s deep rumbling reached a cathartic pinnacle during the ballad’s climax. Afterwards, Wolfe performed a single song alone at the keyboard. The chilling narrative of the song’s deceased subject over staccato keys was a change of pace for the set. The following two tracks also showcased Wolfe’s versatility, as she looped a series of vocal melodies live then sang lead over the bed of vocals generated moments before. This looping technique was also used to create a stunning ethereal effect on the final song. Wolfe created a chorus of high notes that plaintively emanated as Wolfe bowed and said goodnight — the single most artificial moment of the entire set.
Cowgill and Wolfe have certainly received attention for their respective emphasis on the occult and macabre. But the transparency evident in their acoustic performances Friday night illustrated that the value of their songs extends far beyond their arguably sensational subject matter.