The many 'Phases' of Angel Olsen, on the first of two nights at Union Transfer
The superb indie songwriter and her band return for a second sold-out date on Thursday.
Next to nothing Angel Olsen and her five-piece band did on Tuesday in their first of two back-to-back shows at Union Transfer would lead you to label the 30-year-old songwriter a folksinger.
Even during the brief one-and-a-half song interlude set in which Olsen was on stage alone, she accompanied herself on electric rather than acoustic guitar.
But that folkie label has stuck to Olsen even as the North Carolina-based, St. Louis-raised songwriter left the stark and spare instrumental settings of her early releases behind. She's filled out her sound on her two superb, richly atmospheric most recent efforts, 2014's Burn Your Fire for No Witness and 2016's My Woman.
That transformation was underscored by the appearance of the musicians on stage. Olsen was dressed for rock stardom in a skin-tight silver jumpsuit worthy of David Bowie, whose "Five Years" she has been covering frequently on tour (though she didn't do it Tuesday).
And the quintet of musicians behind her — including Philadelphia guitarist Paul Sukeena (he plays with Spacin’), who was shouted out frequently by welcoming audience members — were dressed in matching metallic blue suit jackets and bolo ties.
Angel Olsen's new album is "Phases."Olsen is on the road in support of Phases, an odds-and-ends rarities album of uncommon quality that traces the arc of her career and that includes well-selected covers of songs by Bruce Springsteen and Roky Erickson, as well as "Endless Road," a song first performed by Hoyt Axton on the TV show Bonanza that Axton's mother wrote.
At Union Transfer, Olsen began with "Hi Five," the Burn Your Fire track whose opening, "I feel so lonesome I could cry," calls up the ghost of Hank Williams. She used the retrospective nature of Phases to pull from all the stages of her career. She reached back to 2012's Half Way Home for the "Tiniest Seed," and included a Burn song with an unprintable-in-a-family-news-organization title that rephrases a Save the Planet sentiment in language that was emblazoned on T-shirts and tote bags for sale at the merch table.
Olsen sings in a bordering-on-otherworldly trill that can recall Joan Baez in its upper register. And the band, rounded out by Heather McEntire on keyboard and vocals, Joshua Jaeger on drums, Emily Elhaj on bass, and guitarist Luke Norton, distinguished itself with stately arrangements of songs like "Sister" and "Woman" — on which Olsen switched over to keyboards — that at their best carried the audience away with sweeping Roy Orbison-style grandeur and plenty of reverb.
Olsens' transfixing tunes can induce a narcotic haze (in a good way), and she's expert at projecting an outward calm in songs in which emotional tumult roils just under a placid surface. Tuesday was full of individual set pieces, like "Special" from Phases and the encore starter, "The Waiting" (not the Tom Petty song), that were startlingly effective on their own.
But the show could have benefited from quicker pacing and often struggled to gain momentum. Olsen did find her footing at the end, though, landing a connection by enlisting audience assistance in singing the low notes in a cover of the Velvet Undergound's "I Found a Reason," an excellent and decidedly unfolkie choice.