Photo: Jeff MinA stiff, unforgiving breeze pierced through Chicago the same night as Chelsea Wolfe‘s set at Schubas Tavern on Chicago’s Northside, a show in conjunction with the annual Tomorrow Never Knows Festival. The wind, much more menacing than usual, even by Chicago standards, was a fitting accessory to Chelsea’s performance.

Wolfe has an immediate, almost ominous, presence to her. So when she took the stage and nobody said a word it wasn’t much of a surprise at all. It was quiet enough for her to whisper into the microphone that she wasn’t feeling well. And before the overwrought chorus of “awes,” and “we love you’s” rained in she broke right into “Appalachia,” deflecting the empty gestures with one broad stroke of her guitar:

Like black diamonds, ash and light
Like the mines and anthracite
Split-tongued fellow, venom survived
Violence only against the vile

Photo: Jeff Min

In a live setting “Appalachia” hits much harder than it would through, say, a pair of headphones. The simple acoustic riffs resonate withforce, and march forward with a foreboding level of ministry. Violinist, and collaborator on Chelsea’s latest albumAndrea Calderon fluidly worked through the riff, giving Wolfe’s voice a reference point to come back to when she alters her pitch for dramatic effect.

She took commanding control – a patient, tactful approach paramount to her comfort zone. Otherwise heady songs like “Gold” and “Boyfriend” would come across as melodramatic and forced. But now that the stage was hers she delivered them confidently as if she was singing to each individual person in the room:

Boyfriend, be careful if you can
There’s glory coming out
I can taste it on our mouths
There is a stranger’s heart beating inside in my chest
You call this passion but I call it cancer

Stylistically, it’s hard not to think of Wolfe as a transplant from a different time, a mystic plucked right out of the 12th Century. She has
that presence about her. Almost tragic. In a live setting it adds context to her lyrics. Bandmates Ben Chisholm and Andrea Calderon played off these subtle theatrics, adding a level of whimsy that allowed Wolfe to pour her heart out effortlessly like she did on “Sunstorm:”

When the minute goes by faster than the feet
When the winter passes slowly as defeat
When the face of death is after me spinning
Only dream of me

But what made this show notable was the softer moments between her more poignant songs. By stripping down the sound to its bare essentials Wolfe’s lyrics penetrated in much more dramatic ways, a far more effective style than the overproduced sounds of previous albums. Songs like “Flatlands” came across as epic stories, and held the audience’s attention in a vice grip, refusing to let go until the message hit home. The song exemplified Chelsea Wolfe’s ability to transcend styles and connect in ways that humanize the listener:

I want flatlands soft and steady breeze
Bringing scents of lined-up orchard trees
Dripping heavy with pears and dancing leaves
I want flatlands
Will you go there with me?