Alan Resnais’ 1961 film Last Year At Marienbad is famous for its dreamlike qualities and enigmatic narrative structure: critics remain divided over whether the film should be taken as reality, fantasy, or some cryptic blend of the two.
Perhaps it’s that a similar sense of ambiguity and sonorousness animates Julia Holter’s music which causes that film to spring to mind as her band begin to play (or perhaps it’s just that she has a great song called Marienbad – sadly, she doesn’t play it tonight).
She opens instead with ‘Lucette Stranded On The Island’, which sets an apt tone for proceedings: like her contemporary Joanna Newsom, Holter’s chimeric, avant-garde pop can be challenging to the unready ear, but once you embrace her vision, it’s gorgeous and sublime.
Her most direct material wins the crowd over quickest: ’In The Same Room’ from Ekstasis wraps an infectious melody around an unusually metronomic tempo, marking a nice contrast to the dronier passages that elsewhere pepper her set.
Inquisitive baroque dreamscape ‘Feel You’ – lead single from 2015’s Have You In My Wilderness – washes through the crowd in pleasant waves, all 80s pop reverberation and sweeping Kate Bush strings.
One of the most interesting things about watching Holter is realising the gulf between her music and her persona.
Where one unfamiliar with the individual might expect a sense of larger-than-life theatricality from her performance, she’s surprisingly airy and nonchalant between songs, briefly but earnestly thanking the crowd in a mild Valley Girl lilt.
Halfway through introducing ‘The Falling Age’, from debut album Tragedy, she cracks herself up imagining how Hippolytus – the dramatic protagonist of Euripides’ play which inspired the album –died (spoiler alert: a bull jumped out of the sea and tossed him about a bit).
Holter’s band, on the other hand, play up to the trendy LA jazz muso stereotype just enough to balance the seriousness equation.
Drummer Carey Fogel – an intense, swarthily-bearded presence – piques interest on every tune, skipping restlessly around the expected 4/4 beat rather than succumbing to it.
And double-bassist Devon Hoff is a marvel to watch, hopping around his sizeable instrument with the all the energy of an intoxicated Pan, alternating between perky plucking and strenuous bowing.
‘Betsy On The Roof’ is undoubtedly the highlight of the night – an utterly transportive, show-stopping torch song; Holter’s ‘Lady Grinning Soul’.
It’s totally unique within her existing canon, being all the more emotionally resonant for lacking the qualities of narrative and literariness Holter’s tunes normally have.
Julia Holter is a consummate performer and true artist, completely at home in her own skin, who offers her audience something special: the knowledge they’re watching a performer for whom performance itself is a realisation of something larger, more intangible – she is, in a way, performing a dream of herself.
All of us in the audience can all share in her dream this evening, regretting only that we have to wake up by 10.30 sharp.
Words: Graham Neil Gillespie