Music that strains to prove how earnest it is does not sit well with me and nobody makes pathetically yearning laments like singer-songwriters. How does anyone slapped with the stigma "singer-songwriter" distinguish themselves from the legions of mooks with a guitar, soulful eyes and an oh-so-sensitive sensibility distinguish? Ideally you reach down deeper for something a little more than superficial pain and you innovate by going beyond the typical three-chord, pseudo-folk of most singer-songwriters, to find inspiration in Celtic ballads, Scandinavian strings and Appalachian folk songs. You focus on conveying more nuanced emotions -- betrayal, fear, obsession, mindless ecstasy -- to an audience you seem engaged with rather than making a martyr of yourself to pursue fame. You behave, in short, as Monica Heldal
did at the Mercury Lounge.
Short, serious and dark, her image at odds with one might envision when they hear "Nordic songstress." Ms. Heldal presented a disarmingly warm presence, comfortable on stage because she is confident in the quality of her work, but somehow still vulnerable, as if she realized how fragile her music sounded, and understood that even the most minor loss of control would ruin it. This is music that required finesse to pull off: if too heavily worked it might have turned out cloying or maudlin, too lightly worked and it may have been inaudible.
There were times when the backing guitar of her bandmate resorted to an effect that belonged more in the over-produced burbles of later Pink Floyd songs, moments where the reserved sensibilities of her steel guitar were drowned out by an unwelcome plasticity, but these moments were rare, her bandmate often as controlled as she was.
It was a delicate set, even when the tempo picked up, the audience remaining silent and focused, not out of any kind of reverence or out of boredom, but because they seemed entirely focused on the performance before them. Walking between listeners to take these pictures felt rude, intrusive, like walking through a forest in the middle of a snowstorm: I felt all of my motion was disruptive of a rare kind of stillness, my movements an unwelcome clumsiness, and the sound of my camera's shutter an audible and unpleasant distraction.
It may not have been the most appropriate opening act for The Last Bison
, a group big in its size, big in its sound and big in its attitude, a group that takes many of the same influences Ms. Heldal has and infuses them with a fire that seems antithetical (yet works!), but in fact she grounded the evening perfectly. Suggestive and gently invasive, Ms. Heldal's performance is ethereal without being slight, light but by no means breezy. This is perfectly haunting winter music that deserves all of the attention it commands.