Julia Holter The Great Hall, Toronto ON, March 4

Julia Holter The Great Hall, Toronto ON, March 4
Photo: Shane Parent
"I heard you guys were cool," said Los Angeles pianist-singer-songwriter Julia Holter, after apparently receiving word backstage from her opening act, Circuit des Yeux. "It's fun to be back because I love Toronto," she added later on, recalling a very late-night performance at the Music Gallery in "2000 and something." Last night's (March 4) performance marked her first return to the city in three years, to promote songs from last year's sublime Have You in My Wilderness.
With a trio of players (Devin Hoff on bass, Dina Maccabee on viola and Corey Fogel on drums — no saxophonist), she focused mostly on new material, playing the bulk of Wilderness. It was an opportunity for the band to show off their chops when it came to dynamic shifts. "Everytime Boots" moved with an audible skip in its step, the harpsichord-led "Feel You" was a hazy dream and "How Long?" brought it all back down with its tranquil and beatific droning, allowing Maccabee to take charge. But make no mistake: Holter's voice was the highlight here; it's extraordinary live. She has remarkable control over it, letting it sail like a siren at will before turning on a dime to wrap around a fixed melody.
Over the last couple of albums, Holter has unlocked all sorts of melodious potential in her songwriting, but it was the heavier, more expansive fare that made for the most compelling moments. Described as "a song about being attacked and left on an island to die, which happens to us in all kinds of abstract ways," Holter drifted into a more penetrating rendition of the airy "Lucette Stranded on the Island," in which the excessive drum noise threatened to derail it entirely. And on Loud City Song's "Horns Surrounding Me," she eased up on the studio version's chilling tension in favour of a deep, pulsating vibe that really demonstrated Hoff's ability to play a bass like a cello.
Hearing two songs from her 2011 debut, Tragedy — "Goddess Eyes" and "So Lillies" — was an unexpected treat, though at least one song from the followup, Ekstasis, would have been nice. She closed the set with "Vasquez," a loose piece of jazz built on a free rhythm that allowed everyone an opportunity to jam out on a tangent before reeling it back in. They encored with an impassioned cover of the Bacharach/David/Warwick classic, "Don't Make Me Over," which they totally made their own, and "Sea Calls Me Home," a sparkling pop song that had every head in the room bobbing despite the absence of its killer sax solo.
"It's been really nice in this big old room in this lovely city," Holter said as a farewell, hopefully a suggestion that her next visit will be sooner than later.