Angel Olsen brings majestic ‘Big Time’ country to Lawrence

20230127 Dsc 1482

Angel Olsen. // photo by Chris Ortiz

As Angel Olsen paused to tune her guitar on Friday night following the opening song “Dream Thing,” a few fans partook in an age-old concert tradition that invariably happens that first moment the music stops. Shouting distance from a globe-trotting rockstar, they screamed out from the teeming Lawrence crowd, “I love you!”

Olsen, no stranger to these types of fawning plaudits, stood on the Liberty Hall stage with her head down and a half-smile on her face, using her left hand to spin the knobs, her right to strum. She was preparing to play the next selection from her 2022 country odyssey, Big Time, with her accompanying Big Time Band, all dressed head-to-toe in vibrant primary colors, serving major Crayola looks. A landscape of forest and mountains served as the backdrop.

It seemed the adoring comments were over when a woman maybe 5 feet in front of me took this rare chance to add her own—honest and sorta sweet—thoughts.

“My daughter loves you,” she stated loudly.

“That’s something I haven’t heard. I like that,” Olsen said, surprised, and with a warm southern cadence. “What’s your daughter’s name?”

20230127 Dsc 1533 2

Angel Olsen. // Photo by Chris Ortiz

The woman shouted out “Natalie.”

Olsen muttered into the microphone, “God bless you,” before joking, “Natalie and I have an understanding.” She tried to get back to preparing to play the title track, “Big Time,” but had to stop again because she began to crack up. Her laughter grew and grew until the band was chuckling, and the crowd was too.

It was perhaps a too-on-the-nose thing for a dragged-along mother to say. The St. Louis-born Olsen is, of course, a modern indie rocker whose fanbase skews younger, full of plaid-shirt-wearing millennials, raised on garage bands like the White Stripes, open to the theatrical and cathartic outbursts of crescendoing noise that grace much of her best work. But the comment is also misleading—her music can simultaneously feel rooted in the past, influenced by old vinyl records where the singers are a little too close to the mics, and the instruments a little too crackly. Her voice, a raspy warble that can climb to soaring heights, is somehow timeless. Like a classic singer-songwriter, she crafts small ditties before bringing in sweeping arrangements.

That much was made clear on Whole New Mess, her 2020 album that revealed the stark original versions of songs from 2019’s All Mirrors, her massive and ambitious synth-rock spectacle. On last year’s Big Time, she went with something in between, a collection of country-leaning tracks that revel in simplicity—the strum of a guitar, a melancholic violin, a wobbly rockabilly organ—and make space for those moments that go from zero to 1,000.

It’s the first record she’s put out since she came out as gay in April 2021, and her vulnerable lyrics deal with old and new loves, solitude, and taking charge of your own narrative. They’re made to be sung in a cowboy hat, a pair of pointy leather boots, and a feeling of empowerment.

The standing-room-only show Olsen put on over the weekend captured the twangy spirit of the album, making a college town in the Midwest feel more like Nashville.

Summarizing the vibe of the evening, one of the T-shirts on display at the merch booth simply read, “Not Not Country.”

20230127 Dsc 1346

Erin Rae. // photo by Chris Ortiz

Opening act Erin Rae—who actually is from Nashville—set the tone, playing a solo set with only her acoustic guitar and gorgeous falsetto singing, which Olsen later admitted she was envious of. One of her most moving performances was of “Bittersweet, TN,” a somber ballad written by KC’s Kevin Morby, released on This is a Photograph in 2022, on which she’s a featured singer. Like her own material, the piece is gentle and filled with longing. She channeled it brilliantly and was a perfect compliment to the artist she was supporting.

Olsen, sporting a bold blue T-shirt and high-waisted pants, kicked off her set with several songs from Big Time. On “Dream Thing” and “Ghost On,” she sang in a slightly hushed, emotive, lilting register, delivering poetic lines over subtle but rich orchestrations from her band, which included a violin, cello, bass, guitars, drums, and keyboard.

When she got to “Go Home”—specifically the affecting chorus of “I want to go home/Go back to small things”—her voice exploded into a disparate rallying cry. It was something to behold, a powerhouse performance from one of our best and most distinctive singers.

Older, more rock-forward songs—like “Shut Up Kiss Me,” “Give it Up,” and “Lark”—were welcome, head-bobbing intervals in between the bouts of elegant country. She more than once asked the crowd what song they would want to hear, and many classics of her catalog were suggested, most of which she didn’t play. But one consistent request did come up from 2016’s My Woman, which she ended up playing toward the end of the night. She told the crowd she hadn’t played “Sister” in about two months.

She introduced it by saying, “It’s about 7 minutes and 45 seconds long,” and then proceeded to play the hell out of every second of them. The lyrics pack an emotional punch: “I want to go where/Nobody knows fear/I want to follow/My heart down that wild road.”

20230127 Dsc 1352

Erin Rae. // photo by Chris Ortiz

After her only encore song, a joyously communal cover of Harry Nilsson’s “Without You,” the lights came up, and I found myself wandering toward the merch booth in the back. Erin Rae was standing by her shirts and records, talking to people who came up to her, some having experienced her music for the first time.

I asked her what it has been like to be on tour with Angel Olsen, and wanted confirmation on something I thought saw earlier in the night—Olsen, in a white turtleneck, standing in the wings and watching Rae play before her own set. She told me yes, it was.

“She’s so sweet and just very supportive,” Rae said. “It means a lot that she would come watch the show.”

The feeling is mutual for Rae, who’s been lucky enough to watch and play with Olsen on one leg of her thrilling tour.

Together, they gave us an unforgettable night of—let’s call it—not not country.

All photos by Chris Ortiz (Instagram: @fastboyent).

Angel Olsen

Erin Rae

Categories: Music