How does one properly kick off a holiday weekend? If you asked the near-capacity crowd at Bowery Ballroom on Friday night, you would have received a peculiar answer: being hypnotized. The illusionist tasked with the mind control of 500 people was one Julia Holter, the Los Angeles-based singer-songwriter behind one of the more unique releases of the year, Ekstasis. Helped by a cellist and drummer, Holter took command of the audience in a manner similar to a magician: hiding behind smiles and sleight of hand, lulling her fans into a comfortable area before slamming them with an unexpected chord or shriek. It was thrilling to see given Holter’s almost complete lack of banter; her tricks were more cerebral than “Hey, look over here!”
This gave the audience a sense of dread throughout the hour-long set. It was not a dread born of fear or of ignorance. No, Holter’s dread was for our consciousness and for how it was allowed to lose control within the woozy synths and macabre-sounding rhythms. A song like Ekstasis opener “Marienbad” starts with a repetitive progression, amplified by Holter’s voice, which seems to come out of your own body rather than hers. It was strengthened by her seeming ambivalence toward the room; we were there for her, not the other way around. This was evident by one of the pieces of banter that she did employ: the very deadpan “We played New York for the first time in March. This is our second welcome, so thank you. We like playing here.” Simple, honest, yet you can’t help but think that she’s about to curse you out for not being all the way out of your body, no matter how hard you tried.
She did try to help us along the way to some other plane of existence: One song ended with an approximately five-minute outro that consisted of reverb from both Holter and her cellist, with no earthy drumline to keep us grounded. You could not be blamed for closing your eyes and letting the music invade you, as a woman did to my left. This was followed by “Goddess Eyes II,” my personal favorite from Ekstasis, which closed out the pre-encore set. She came back out for the one-song encore, 2011’s “Sea Called Me Home,” laughing because they hadn’t played the final song too often. Whistling runs through the song amid thoughts of ocean-influenced lucidity, and Holter invited participation. “You guys wanna whistle when I whistle?” she asked. “You don’t have to.” It was a surprisingly populist ending to a show that demonstrated, above all, what a singular force this singer truly is.