Jolie Holland and Herman Dune
October 24, 2008
The Jackpot Music Hall
Better Than: 500 mg of Doxycycline.
By GRANT SNIDER
To paraphrase Adam Duritz, poet laureate of ‘90s Top 40 Radio, I want to meet a girl who looks like Elvis. As Jolie Holland sings, one side of her upper lip curls into a King-like sneer you’d swear was lifted from a Graceland shrine. With no hip swiveling to speak of, Holland’s facial contortions carry the emotional weight of her melancholic songs.
Decorated for Halloween, the Jackpot’s stage was a mass of gauzy spiderwebs backlit in red and blue. The décor mirrored Holland’s music – songs that evoke a dimly lit saloon of yore, covered by years of dust and death. Her solo albums have explored the early incarnations of folk, Rhythm & Blues, and Country & Western through the privileged view of a modern singer-songwriter. Touring to support The Living and the Dead, she employed a full band: a bassist, a lead guitarist, and drummer Rachel Blumberg, who must be tired of being billed as “formerly of the Decemberists.”
More after the jump.
The full-band treatment worked well on songs of yearning like “Palmyra” and “Mexico City,” as Holland’s band kept up a steady trot of sun-baked Southwestern rock. Some of the new material seemed in danger of getting stuck in this pleasant midtempo rut – the darker, weirder stuff helped keep things interesting. Holland played a box-shaped fiddle on an instrumental prelude to “Alley Flowers,” a wonderfully ominous tune driven by thumping bass and Blumberg’s skillful pounding. The lyrics name-dropped Willie McTell (presumably the blind one), Zora Neale Hurston, Shakespeare, and Jesus Christ. The music itself would fit perfectly on Tom Waits’ Mule Variations.
The prevailing instrument was always Holland’s voice, despite an ailment she described as an “amphibian infestation.” She played an impromptu, unaccompanied version of “You Painted Yourself In” while the guitarist fetched her medicine of choice – whiskey. Her beautifully wavering, bittersweet intonations couldn’t be maintained by mere antibiotics. The theme of self-medicating continued as she told the story behind “Old Fashioned Morphine.” Holland took some of her grandfather’s morphine before a Greyhound bus ride from Texas to San Francisco. Trippiness ensued as she sat next to Willie Nelson’s busdriver and a gospel choir from Georgia, hearing wild tales of life on the road and persuading the choir to break into song. Why do already great songwriters get all the best stories?
Herman Dune, a duo from Paris with roots in Sweden, played the role of unconventional opener, their breezy anti-folk ditties were in sharp contrast with Holland’s mournful country-western ballads.
David-Ivar Herman Dune’s lyrics were more tongue-in-cheek than your grandmother with a new set of dentures. He also sported a beard straight from the cover of Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours or a photo of my dad from the early ‘80s. Or perhaps it’s a style inspired by Judaism– the band plugged a new album called Next Year in Zion. With David on guitar and vocals and Neman Herman Dune on drum kit, bongos, and musical saw, their set felt like Flight of the Conchords without creepy Mel: clumsily earnest foreigners with a clever sense of humor and melody. Their songs suggested children’s singalongs (“123/Apple Tree”) or island calypso (“Don’t You Worry A Bit, Try To Think About Me”) filtered through Eastern European folk music. I’d vote for them to replace Kimya Dawson on an ill-advised Juno sequel. I just wish they had played this song.
Personal Bias: Taking the stage wearing a flannel shirt with a matching flannel tie (David-Ivar) or a feather in your hair (Jolie Holland) gives you instant artistic credibility.
Random Detail: Probably straight from the Sarah Palin rally, a few Jolie Holland fans made the long trek from Springfield, Missouri. One rowdy, presumably drunken Springfieldian seriously freaked out Jolie Holland prior to her set with an unintelligible rant of excessive affection. After a few tense minutes, he was calmed down by the Jackpot staff, and Holland and her band took the stage. It put an unpleasant edge on the show. Check out a comment from “Joe Bob” on her MySpace page for further clarification.
By the way: If you plan to sing karaoke with a debilitating cold, you’ll be better off with modern medicine than whiskey. Unless you are Jolie Holland.