Like Bob Dylan, the studio versions of a lot of Jolie Holland’s songs are mere blueprints for what’s possible onstage.
“Sorry, everybody,” apologized Jolie Holland halfway through her set at the Boulder Theater. “I seem to have some sort of… amphibian in my throat.” Not that anyone had noticed up until that point -- she certainly wasn’t up there croaking. Holland’s smoky voice sounded perhaps a tad bit smokier than usual this evening, but it was still the breathtaking centerpiece of an all-too-short set. It’s been noted ad nauseam in every review she’s ever gotten, but, damn, the lady has an incredible set of pipes, amphibian or no amphibian. The opener this evening was a French/Swiss guitar/drums duo named Herman Dune, who were new to me, and seemingly the rest of the audience. It didn’t take long for them to win us over though, with a refreshing sound that blended Jonathan Richman whimsy with John Darnielle wordiness. The songs were melodically fairly simple, but remained sprightly and interesting thanks to clever arrangements and a winning stage presence. They are definitely an act to keep an eye out for. Holland is touring the country in support of her fourth record, The Living & The Dead, which sees her moving in a somewhat more mainstream-y direction, with a handful of songs that wouldn’t be out of place on, say, a recent Lucinda Williams record. Her set, like the new album, kicked off with “Mexico City”, with chiming guitars, a straight-ahead beat, and a soaring chorus. But the song didn’t quite lift off in the way it does during its studio version, upon which friend to alt-country/indie rock chanteuses everywhere M. Ward guests. Maybe Ward’s absence was the missing ingredient, but Holland’s backing band (featuring former Decemberists drummer Rachel Blumberg) sounded a bit tentative, lacking the punch needed to pull off a truly exciting performance. The same went for another of the new album’s rockers, “Your Big Hands”. It wasn’t awful by any means, but it didn’t quite achieve the anthemic quality that the song deserved. Actually, the best part of the latter tune was Holland’s rambling off-the-cuff preface, which saw her reciting the lyrics to an old Daniel Johnston number. But the songs mentioned above were the only two low points in what was otherwise an excellent set. While Holland’s band might not have been able to pull off the louder, more raucous numbers, they excelled at the mellower stuff, and Holland responded in kind with some lovely vocals. She’s a singer who’s absolutely worth seeing in a live context because she always takes chances, trying out weird phrasings, slurring words together and falling slightly out of rhythm, only to bring things back together somehow. It didn’t always work, but it was fun to hear her playing around with her own creations. Like Dylan, the studio versions of a lot of her songs are mere blueprints for what’s possible onstage. Though things seemed even looser than usual this evening, the bottle she was swigging throughout the set was not wine, but mineral water. She was battling that amphibian, I guess. Later, she even asked if anyone in the audience had any Fisherman’s Friend -- which surprisingly enough was delivered to her quite rapidly. Despite any vocal issues Holland may have had, there were plenty of spine-tingling moments. The mysterious vibe of “Fox In Its Hole” was a slithery, beguiling thing -- atmospheric and creepy without seeming clichéd. Avant-guitarist Marc Ribot guests brilliantly on the studio version, but Holland’s band did just fine without him on this one, nailing the vibe perfectly. On the other side of the spectrum was the beautifully breezy “The Littlest Birds”, a song that weds Syd Barrett lyrics to a tune you can imagine the Carter Family harmonizing on. Holland took her time on this song, lingering on the simple but enormously resonant words and letting the music wind its way to a close. The song was one of the oldest she played -- it appears on her 2003 debut Catalpa -- but it’s clear she hasn’t grown tired of it. After closing out her main set with “Corrido Por Buddy”, a standout track from the new album, the crowd hollered for an encore. Holland came back out onstage shortly, but no more songs were forthcoming. She apologized, saying there was no way she could sing another one. She had fought valiantly, but the amphibian had won.