Last night, The Chapel may as well have been a spiritual gathering.
Julianna Barwick‘s vocal performance is shape-shifting, whether it’s in the high-ceilinged Austin church in which I first witnessed her live, or the moderate height of the open two-story interior of The Chapel. Although volume plays into it, the sounds she emits adapt to their container naturally. Weighing the options just here in San Francisco, I was relieved that the show ended up at The Chapel; it was well attended, but not packed – which led several audience members to sitting on the floor, some even meditating.
In Seattle, there’s a church that on Sunday nights hosts a choir that performs Gregorian chants. People of all backgrounds and ages crowd into the cathedral, using all the space available to stretch out on the floor or huddle in corners to listen to the choir. Regardless of one’s beliefs, it’s a moving experience that even brings some to tears. The voices fill up the space in such an arresting way that I hadn’t again felt until witnessing Barwick’s live performance.
Standing or sitting, observing Barwick’s set last night felt much like meditation. Her method of performing live invites you to concentrate on Barwick as she layers each track onto the previous loop. She uses the low end of her vocal chamber to build a base layer then varies her falsetto onto that, all while playing heavily reverberated piano. On this tour she is accompanied by a guitarist, who provided massive, oceanic swells in an amusing fashion – when the room was silent, you could hear the guitar strings being plucked before the volume knob was turned up in order for the guitar effect to be audible.
Put simply, Barwick’s process is complex, yet transparent; her ability to finely tune a live set with rhythmic peaks and valleys is impressive. She played mostly newer material, and Nepenthe is truly her best work to date. Throughout the show gorgeous projections were masked onto a circular shape on the screen behind her, varying from close-ups of textured lace to waves, mountain ranges and forests, with the light changing from black to blue and, thankfully, never red.
Although the mood was mostly serious throughout the night, there was a comical moment when the computer running the projections had a banking reminder pop up on the screen. As the crowd let out a polite chuckle, Barwick took notice and in a comical manner raised her arms mid-“ahhhh”.
The only disappointing thing about the show was how loud the crowd was in the main open chamber of The Chapel. It is a venue with multiple parts, including a completely sealed off bar area with TV screens showing the performance, but unfortunately the talkative members of the crowd didn’t utilize that space. This really took away from the performance at moments where the volume was faint, but about three quarters of the way through the show, the chatter dissolved and those quiet moments actually felt still, as they should.
Mark McGuire supported the show, who after parting ways with Portland/Cleveland-based ambient band Emeralds has taken a departure from the bleak side of ambient rock. His set consisted of drum tracks cued up with his guitar playing over it, which he self describes as “meditational synth and guitar reflections.” McGuire was in strong form, legs wide and shoulders popping up and down as he seemingly noodled his way through high-energy tracks that had a few members of the crowd bouncing along. It was colorful and strange, and at times included bright clean vocals and Aleister Crowley samples.