Review and photos by Josette Thornhill.
As an atmospheric river descended onto much of California, a surprisingly large group of people braved the downpour to make it to Squirrel Flower’s Jan. 31st show at Bottom of the Hill. Squirrel Flower is the musical project of Boston-born, Chicago-based artist Ella Williams, who was interviewed ahead of the show by KALX’s own Gloop.
“I always imagine a river in the sky,” Williams said when she began her set. “It felt like that outside about an hour ago.”
It was a three-bill show, the first set being L.A. band Fime, a four-piece group whose bouncy and energetic set was one of the most enjoyable openers I’ve seen in a while. They were followed by Goon, who had been touring with Squirrel Flower since the opening of her U.S. tour, and playing their last night as part of the ensemble before departing.
I’ve often heard Williams’ music and stage presence be described as ethereal — one of those words which is so overused it’s mostly lost any meaning. However, I understand what it means when applied to Squirrel Flower. Williams’ music has always stood apart from other slowcore bands often mentioned in the same breath, maybe because her folk-tinged songs are unique in genre blending, or maybe because that she’s the singular songwriter of the project is what makes it so impressive. There’s no doubt that her voice has an angelic kind of quality which is replicated exactly live as it sounds on studio recordings. Her songs are largely stripped-back and sometimes, albeit rarely, crescendo into giant-feeling and deeply moving numbers.
Around ten o’clock Williams took the stage with a three piece band — bass, a second electric guitar, and drums — but her first song (also the opening track of her latest album Tomorrow’s Fire) “i don’t use a trash can” was done solo. Pressing on the loop pedals with her brown leather boots, which she told us were still wet from the walk in the rain she’d taken earlier, she layered verses of her own voice to harmonize with. “Watching you spin,” she sang, “I was overwhelmed.” Dressed simply in a patterned dress layered over a t-shirt and baggy jeans, Williams still immediately enraptured the crowd.
Her own bandmates sometimes stood perfectly still, their eyes closed listening to Williams play. The crowd was almost completely quiet, but an awe-struck kind of silence that made me feel like we were all at church, or watching a symphony. Hearing people around me sing along to their favorite songs was jarring, that’s how quiet we all were.
She started with songs mostly from the new album, like the singularly upbeat track“Intheskatepark” and the angsty self-reflective “Full Time Job.” Williams transitioned into older numbers, like a full band version of “Your Love Is A Disaster,” which was initially released on the 2022 project Planet EP, reimagined from its acoustic beginnings to a jammy, ambient rock ballad.
During her number “Iowa 146,” an older song from the 2021 album Planet (i), one audience member walked in from the Bottom of the Hill’s rain-soaked patio and cringed at the sound of his own wet shoes squeaking against the venue’s floor, deafening over the sound of Williams’ gentle melodies. She smiled, and continued.
“If I play you guitar, will everything fall away?” she asked. And completing the chorus with: “I’ll take my sweet time getting all the notes right.” Squirrel Flower’s melodies are often lilting and soft, over complicated guitar strumming. With a silver guitar slide on her ring finger, she played for us with effortless-looking dexterity.
Listening to Squirrel Flower’s discography as a whole, you notice themes: the feeling of running away, driving on highways, dust and escapes. “Flames and Flat Tires,” for example, seems to recount time spent on the road, and the freedom she associates with it. Williams told us they’d traveled approximately 5,000 miles in the ten days they’d been on tour. While clearly tired from being on the road, the band still seemed happy to be there. Williams also informed us that the merch table was selling linocut print posters, the profits of which were to be donated to buy e-sims for those experiencing genocide in Gaza.
Before an encore covering Caroline Polacheck’s pop anthem “So Hot You’re Hurting My Feelings,” the last song of the night was “Desert Wildflowers,” which felt perfectly fitting for the rainstorm raging down around us. Williams sang: “I’m not scared of the flood, I’ll be there with open arms and my feet in the mud.” “I’m not scared of the storm, I’ll be lying on the roof when the tornado turns.”