“Give me that old fashioned morphine / It’s good enough for me / It was good enough for Billy Burroughs / It’s good enough for me,” the Texan-born singer warbled with her beautiful, distinctive drawl during the last song of her set Tuesday evening at downtown Santa Barbara’s SOhO Restaurant & Music Club before returning for an encore. Like morphine, her voice absolutely infects the listener with its intoxicating power.
The lyrics from “Old Fashioned Morphine,” one of the best tracks of 2004’s Escondida, perfectly sums up the spooky, old timey appeal that sets Jolie Holland apart from her fellow indie-chanteuse peers – Neko Case, Jenny Lewis or Feist – whom she’s constantly being compared to, though I would liken her voice and overall sound to that of L.A.-based singer-songwriter Eleni Mandell, who shares her taste for smoky, slow-burning vocals that sound like they’d be more at home in a speakeasy than a stage at some Pitchfork-approved music festival.
Holland is frequently compared to singer-songwriters like Tom Waits (himself a fan of Holland) for her unique voice and lyrics related to Beat poets of days past, as seen in her Burroughs reference as well as the photo of Burrough’s common-law wife, Joan Vollmer, who appears on the booklet inside of her new album, The Living and the Dead. It’s not the subject matter that makes her music unique – Lord knows every scruffy-haired amateur with a guitar has some sort of ode to Kerouac – but Holland’s masterful delivery and insistence on old-fashioned instrumentation lend it an authenticity beyond her 33 years.
The singer stepped onto the stage with a feather tucked into her long brown hair, greeting the enthusiastic audience that had gathered to witness the third show of her month-long continental tour. Holland is currently touring in support of her most recent release (featuring current folk favorite M. Ward and accomplished guitarist Marc Ribot), which hit stores on Oct. 7 by Anti-Records, which combines the more jazz-oriented, smoky aesthetic of her previous three albums – Catalpa, Springtime Can Kill You and Escondida – with a slightly more accessible, rock-oriented sound that suits her just as well. Holland demonstrated both sides of her musical spectrum at SoHO.
Holland was accompanied by three touring bandmates who contributed nicely to her lively show, though Holland plays most of the instruments, including drums and guitars, on her albums. That particular evening, Holland herself played guitar, an antique-looking box-fiddle and the piano, apologizing for not getting out her ukulele.
Highlights of the night included lovely renditions of new songs like “Fox In Its Hole,” Holland classics like “Goodbye California,” a cover or two and unreleased songs like “Honey” that Holland explained were meant for the new album but didn’t make the final cut (what a shame, too, because the piano-driven song was one of the evening’s best).
“Be the asshole who gets up and dances,” Holland encouraged the audience seated adoringly at her feet early in her set, provoking enthusiasm from the fairly youthful crowd who were all too willing to oblige. Holland demonstrated her playful wit throughout the show, sprinkling banter with her band in between songs, covering everything from Amy Winehouse’s cocaine cotton candy machine (her drug-related segue into “Old Fashioned Morphine”) to her own spastic dance moves.
The opening band was a hit, too: The French folk duo, Herman Dune, had more than a handful of fervent supporters among the crowd, and deservedly so. Playing a sweet, tender brand of guitar-driven pop melodies without a trace of irony, lead singer David-Ivar Herman Dune and drummer Neman Herman Dune (yes, they use matching last names, à la the Ramones or the Donnas) started the show off with none of the apprehensive or overcompensating sort of mannerisms that often plague an opening band.
In the hands of lesser musicians, the music could come across as cloying and too silly (“Shark Attack” comes to mind), but there is something remarkably sincere and charming about the band’s sound, which it has perfected over its five albums produced since its 1999 debut. Winning songs performed by the band included “Next Year in Zion,” the titular track from the album the band released on Sept. 9.