It’s been a rather intense summer out here in New York City, show-wise. Perhaps one of my favorite summers in terms of the sheer volume of concerts and quality acts that have rolled through this urban sprawl. A summer that has quickly depleted my bank account, and left me a fair share more deaf than I was back in the spring. But really, that’s my own fault. So let’s not mince words or turn this into yet another woe is me because I go out to happy hour a few times a week in addition to seeing some of the best tours because of where I live. I’m here to write about an intimate evening with Chelsea Wolfe at Saint Vitus.
I initially had some trouble writing this review because of two factors: one, was that we missed Wovenhand due to the need to fill our bodies with food and spirits before hand. I know, I know. Adult decisions. But it was a necessary step in order to make it through the night – at least the food part was. The second factor was actually writing the review of the show. Was I going to tackle each song in the order she played them and describe every nuanced emotion that floated across the room and into the collective heart of the audience? Or should I just go the route of briefly summing up her set and let the photos speak for themselves?
So here it is. Chelsea Wolfe is, hands down, a phenomenal artist. You wouldn’t be reading this if you thought otherwise or had no interest in her music. With a voice that is at times hauntingly ethereal, occasionally full of sorrow and pain, but always, without a doubt, darkly enchanting, it’s really hard not to fall in love with her music. But, as this was my first time seeing her live, would all that transition over into the live setting? I had heard stories about her initially having stage-fright during her formative years, to the point where she would wear a black veil on stage in order to erect a barrier between herself and the crowd. But it seems she’s grown as an artist and with herself as a person. She has left that husk of fear behind her and moved on to a new phase. One that is absolutely riveting to behold.
Perhaps the closet comparison I could make in regards to her stage presence was Beth Gibbons from Portishead. Again, another project that I missed seeing live while they toured. But the frame of reference used for that is the now classic Roseland Live NYC album and video they released in 1997. The particular way Beth hid behind her cigarette and microphone, hunched over as she belted out some of my all time favorite tracks is so ingrained in my memory as one of the most powerful performances I’ve ever witnessed. Chelsea Wolfe works in the same way. Her music – and more importantly, her lyrics – flow out of her like a cold, bitter wind. When not playing the guitar on the newer tracks from Abyss, her hands grasped her head like a dementia-infected mental patient, trying to fight the inevitable darkness that is closing in. At other times, her fingers and arms danced around as if she was chasing ghosts from her past. Always a step behind her target, but unwilling to give up. What really impressed me during her set was just how massively suffocating the new songs are. Her willingness to explore a more Doom/Drone sound plays out so well in the live setting, even more so when at a venue like Saint Vitus. The chest cavity-collapsing guitar work added such a bleak, hopeless feel to her sound on Abyss, so being able to take that into the live setting and properly execute it left me shell-shocked at the immense emotional weight contained on this album. It caused me to really re-think my initial reaction and feelings towards her latest output. To the point now that when I revisited Abyss on my early – five in the morning to be exact – commute to work, I simply had to close my eyes and I could envision her performance of these songs.
In addition to a strong showing for her latest record, the audience was treated to select tracks off Pain is Beauty, her previous offering. Much to my heart-breaking delight, “We Hit a Wall” was included in these songs, a personal favorite. The crowd itself was beyond receptive to her and the band’s display that night, with a number of cheers and swaying back and forth between the eclectic crowd that had assembled at Saint Vitus. In fact, it’s been some time since I’ve seen such a broad swath of people gathered under one roof for a show. From the standard issue indie-rock fan, to the occasional metal head and of course, the Tumblr Witch crowd (thanks to Nathaniel via the brilliance of Timothy Cabana for that one. It’s brilliant, friend). Everyone was there for one reason and one reason alone. The music. Which was a refreshing change of pace when show’s these days often turn into uniformed soldiers of whatever genre is playing that night, huddled around in their specific cliques.
At the end of the day, Chelsea Wolfe was absolutely stunning live. The emotional weight and feelings behind the music played out so well that night, that it was really hard to imagine seeing her and the band anywhere else in the future. The dark, bewitching magic that was summoned forth on that night was beyond special. It was one of a kind. I get this feeling though, that this is pretty much every show for her audience. Because when you make music like this, you’re guaranteed to be moving some mountains and more importantly, people’s very existence when you play it live.