[Editor's note: Folk singer Jolie Holland is playing a series of shows this week at a semi-secret venue in San Francisco. This is an account of one of them.]
The only silent room in San Francisco is a secret venue. Silent, meaning the audience regularly makes no noise. People come here to hear the music, to hear it greedily, to hear its every tiny breath, to hear it with musician's ears. A person in this room may even hope to hear the reverberation coming from inside a rare instrument in the seconds after a song is finished. It's literally underground, fabulously beautiful, acoustically perfect, and cultishly adored. I'm not going to tell you where it is. Jolie Holland's not going to tell you where it is. But she is spending a solid week down there.
Early in this residency, amid the gold glow of lamps and wood -- when did the world forget about footlights? -- Ms. Holland took the stage for a set of newish arrangements with a "big" band (eight musicians,) a bit of new material, and the well-oiled machines of a few favorites including "Old Fashioned Morphine" and "Goodbye California." It was heaven.
The opening band, an unnamed jazz/country/folk rock ensemble, was made up of a rotating group of Holland regulars, local legends, and visitors; notably the astonishing Lamprecht twins, Carey and Amber, Ralph Carney, Keith Cary, and Indigo Street. Their set was entirely improvisational, and experimental at least in the sense that you don't hear oboe and double-necked slide guitar on the same stage too often. And it was the kind of performance the room was made for; the skill of the musicians was insane, and we knew it because we could hear every fucking note. It was already a rare night, and then these same killers stayed onstage all night or jumped on and off, as excited to be audience members as they were to play.
Holland seemed relaxed and looked all magical and glowing like she usually does, but proclaimed herself "Totally nervous. Can you guys hear my voice shaking?" We could not, and were happy to hear the first few bars of that song again.
"This next song is by Dock Boggs," she explained, and when only one whistle came from the back of the room, she heckled us for our ignorance (Even though we were maybe simply being silent?) She kindly went on to describe him anyway. "He sounded less frightening when he was older," and discovered by hippies, "So I don't like that as much." The song she sang was indeed terrifying, and for those of us who enjoy beautiful voices singing horrible words, the way Emmylou Harris does, it was awesome.
Earlier this year, Holland announced that she would be playing a small show in New York with Los Lobos' David Hidalgo -- and that they would be singing "La Pistola y El Corazon." Some of us lost our shit and tried to redo our budgets to see if we could either fly or walk there to see it, failed, and then hyperventilated when we heard about this series of shows. But we thought of ourselves as freaks for caring so much about it, and figured not too many other people knew about this stripped-down loner ballad with the heartbreaking stutter-tempo. So we came prepared to fight for it -- but there was no need, it was offered up without any fuss. In the lady's signature warbling alto, the song had new life. Also, Jolie Holland's feet dance under the piano.
She also told a whale joke: It's hysterical, and it can only be told by Jolie Holland, and she spent several minutes telling us so. It was scary. You can't set up a joke that way. She can; you can't. Unfortunately, it defies description; the punchline is "Man, you're wasted," but that doesn't give anything away.
Between telling about a Lou Reed "sighting" --"He told us he could listen to us all night, so that was cool" -- and pointing out that several of her songs were written steps from where we sat (such as "Crush in the Ghetto"), Jolie Holland charmed and astonished; the residency was off to a hell of a good start. The openers for the series, which runs through this weekend, are different every night; they're all amazing. So if you can find the place, please shut the fuck up.