Angel Olsen offered one of the strangest concert experiences in recent memory at Toronto’s Queen Elizabeth Theatre on November 16. Fans expecting a transcendent and ethereal experience, and rightly so given the melancholic gravitas of the majority of Olsen’s output, received instead an unevenly paced and almost uncomfortable, two-hour set. Though material from this year’s widely-acclaimed album All Mirrors landed beautifully upon the audience, it was the antics between songs, onstage and off, that left the strongest impression.
Let’s begin with a caveat. Olsen’s band, a sextet featuring two string players, elevated the material to often-times sublime heights. Orchestral frenzies breathed new life into Olsen’s generally subdued songwriting, grabbing and holding the audience in an immersion of tense and triumphant feats of musicianship. Olsen’s bellowing and mystical warble were made for the Queen Elizabeth’s pristine acoustics, which gave warmth and grandeur to an already-formidable ensemble. Playing the role of mercurial artiste shrouded in smoke and screeching violin, Olsen had all she needed to offer transcendence. Perhaps laying that unfair expectation on a performer immediately stacks the odds against them, and granted, Olsen and company showed no lack of commitment to their material on Saturday night.
Where the evening faltered, however, was in the show’s pacing, ultimately leading to a degree of tension between performer and audience. Between songs, Olsen did little to maintain momentum. While a well-executed set transitions and flows, Olsen instead offered a series of songs separated by lengthy and awkward silence. While that modest tactic may well have worked in different circumstances, the vast and seated Toronto audience became restless early in the set, heckling nonsense, suggestions – “Album with Mitski!” shouted one man before somehow wandering onstage to exchange indiscernible words with Olsen – and seedily offering to show the artist around later in the night. “The house is backed tonight, and you didn’t pack it,” Olsen shot back while simultaneously attempting to downplay the interruptions. “The talking is worse than last night,” she remarked to her band in reference to either the heckling, her own banter, or both. Swigs of tequila with the band ensued. While the ownness is largely on an audience to remain respectful and courteous, however, one can’t help but feel the performer shares the responsibility in offering a well-assembled and executed show.
While Olsen and company often managed to laugh off the palpable tension, other moments felt more terse, more pointed in their admonishment of the audience. Thankfully, Olsen rebounded time and again to deliver formidable performances, including a two-song encore prompting one man to shout, “that’s my mom’s favourite song!” In one final strange moment, Olsen met the comment with “aw, baby boy,” her delivery drawn-out and ambiguous. Such was the evening: unexpectedly strange, tense, and yet satisfying, like a cherubic chanteuse with war on the mind.