It’s a miserable, grey evening in Dublin, but a gig at the Sugar Club is always somewhat of a transporting experience. While the light drizzle is altogether souring, there’s just something about the darkness and plush comfort of the Leeson St venue that easily shuts out such menial annoyances. With the right performer, it can become cocoon-like and suitably intense. Chelsea Wolfe, the ethereal Sacramento singer-songwriter with a lingering gothic sensibility, is such a performer, but until she comes on stage, Simon Bird will provide some blustering background listening.
The Dublin-based producer is a towering figure with hair to match the deep crimson of the curtain behind him; he spends the his set hunched over his samplers. He takes a few tracks to coax an audible reception from a still-growing audience who really do their best to ignore him and catch up with their friends. Eventually, the cavernous bombast and multi-layered rhythms of his productions manage to capture the crowd’s attention and he’s rewarded with a warm round of applause at the end. Nothing less than deserved but still at odds with what is to come.
Wolfe strides into view, wearing an ankle-length black skirt and a long-sleeved white top. She’s markedly slender and her face is largely covered by a mop of raven hair. With no drummer, she’s only accompanied by a violinist and a keyboardist/bassist. A small band will suffice for now as the set’s opening half takes solely from Wolfe’s 2012 album Unknown Rooms, a collection of acoustic songs that constitutes her most refined and affecting work to date.
The opening strains of ‘Appalachia’ usher the set into life and slowly gather momentum. At this point, everyone has found their spot to sit or stand and ended their conversations. Attention needs to be paid when a performer is so willfully quiet, but such reticence only focuses the audience’s attention. ‘Spinning Centers’ [sic] is the sound of the big bad wolf beckoning naive children deeper and deeper into the forest, which is appropriate, as Wolfe and her two backing musicians have that same creeping magnetism and eerie charisma.
It’s hypnotic at times, and the wonderful one-two punch of ‘Flatlands’ and ‘Boyfriend’ is truly flooring. The former is very simple in construction but undeniably effective in execution and builds with gloomy inevitability towards its spine-tingling chorus. You wonder why songs like ‘Flatlands’ haven’t been around forever; they just seem so obviously great that it seems stupid that nobody wrote them sooner. ‘Boyfriend’ does a great job of following-up, however, and never once lets go of a captivated audience, but shakes loose of acoustic limitations with a boggy, plodding keyboard line at its end. With that and a brief, violin-led interlude, Wolfe and co. exit.
A full band returns without that bewitching violinist, unfortunately, and the set’s second half is far more raw, taking from Wolfe’s first two albums, Apokalypsis and The Grime and the Glow. Although the second half may be more sternum-shattering in its intentions, it by and large fails to match the impact made by the first. Sure, the drummer makes his presence known on ‘Demons’, but it is not until the raucous ‘Moses’ that brute force prove as indelible in their breathless impact as earlier peaks.
‘Movie Screen’ is wispy and meandering allowing everyone a few minutes to breath before the finale, ‘Pale on Pale’, which matches ‘Moses’ for volume and aggression, adding its own disorientating intensity. It’s over suddenly and a focused atmosphere dissipates in an instant as some move to front to converse with Wolfe and her band. Meeting a musician tends to rid them of any enduring mystique they might have, replacing perceptions with an actual person while generally highlighting their on-stage ability. Wolfe is polite and humbled in person and anything but on stage.