Concert Review: boygenius, First Avenue, November 17th
Prior to concluding her blistering opening set, Lucy Dacus addressed the crowd, thanking them, a second time, for coming early to hear her play, but also reminding them—as if everyone in attendance needed a reminder—that Phoebe Bridger, then Julien Baker were up next.
Dacus said something to the effect of, “I hope you are all feeling strong now—because you will need strength to get through this evening.”
The implications of the statement like that could go either way—and I think that was her point. With the co-headlining show, both Bridgers and Baker get ample stage time, and one is going to need the strength to hear two disarmingly emotional singers and songwriters performing back to back.
But also, one is going to need actual physical strength to stand in First Avenue for what would wind up being a roughly four hour show, comprised of separate sets from Dacus, Bridgers, and Baker, with the three returning to the stage to close out the evening as boygenius.
The idea of the opening act, or the ‘special guest’ on a tour, is hit or miss—in my lifetime, and I truthfully have not been to that many concerts, but within my experiences, you can begin to generalize the kind of opening acts you see: there’s the opening act that is absolutely insufferable, and you spend every moment of the half-hour or 45 minutes they have been given wishing they would leave the stage and die; there’s the band, or artist, who isn’t insufferable, but they aren’t amazing—they are tolerable at best, though lacking any real charisma to make them memorable. You will more or less have forgotten their name before their allotted time has wrapped up.
And then there’s the band, or artist, who blows you away—they aren’t there to steal the show, or upstage the headliner, but they come damn near close to doing so. You buy their merchandise during the time in between sets, and I wouldn’t go so far as to say that you’ve found yourself a new favorite band, but you’ve found someone new to research, follow, and support.
The idea of a show with more than two performers is also asking a lot—it can make for a long night, a very late night, and an antsy crowd who are more than likely waiting for the marquee name they paid hard earned money for to take the stage.
With all this being said, the idea of a co-headlining tour between Phoebe Bridgers and Julien Baker, with Lucy Dacus serving as the ‘special guest,’ and their ‘super group’ boygenius coming on stage at the end of the night—the whole thing is rather unique, or, at least, a bit of an anomaly when it comes to live music. There are certainly people in the audience who are there to support one artist slightly more than the others, but the overlap of listenership—thanks to a number of factors—has got to be pretty large.
How often do you go to a concert, and are excited about all three performers included on the bill—with the added bonus of seeing them play together at the end?
I haven’t recorded this song yet; I’d appreciate it if you didn’t either
Lucy Dacus took the stage promptly at 7:30 p.m. on Saturday, November 17th, to an almost already full First Avenue. The show itself had sold out earlier in the week—the release of the boygenius EP earlier in the month, as well as Dacus, Bridgers, and Baker performing on “Late Night with Seth Meyers” certainly helped raise an already high profile for the three singers and songwriters, generating more interest in the show.
Walking out alone, a neon sign dangled above the stage, shaped like the figure from the Historian album cover—Dacus put her electric guitar on, and explained to the crowd she was going to play a new song, and asked that since she hadn’t recorded it yet, that everyone keep their mobile devices in their pockets for the time being.
Dacus declined to introduce the song by name—though the internet has taken to referring to it as “Thumbs.” Whatever it winds up being called, it is a stunning example of why Dacus is a songwriter beyond her years.
At, like, 23 or 24 (rough the same age as her tour mates), she, seemingly effortlessly, creates evocative imagery, that is, at times, intentionally ambiguous, that resonates deeply. This song in question finds Dacus tagging along to meet with the estranged father of someone—the ‘someone’ in the song is left purposefully ambiguous; their gender is never revealed, and in her lyrics, Dacus never mentions if they are romantically involved or simply friends.
Structured around acoustic guitar strums and Dacus’ now trademark vocal delivery, she creates a very vivid scene, brimming with palpable tension and emotion, within the song’s lyrics—like reading the best kind of haunted, pensive, and gorgeous short fiction.
Following her solo performance of “Thumbs,” the members of her band filed onto the stage; forgoing any material from Dacus’ 2016 debut, No Burden, they tore through six songs from this year’s outstanding Historian. Working with a lead guitarist, bassist, and drummer, the material was stripped down quite a bit when compared to the additional bombast found on the recorded versions—the rollicking and jaunty “Addictions” was missing the flourishes of brass that give it an additional punch, but Dacus and her band mates are capable enough and energetic enough to make up for whatever elements they were not able to replicate in a live setting.
And while it was very apparent on Historian just how hard Dacus and her band can rock—on stage, when those specific moments arrive, they have no problem delivering. Her set was loud. Not, like, too loud to the point where my ears are still ringing, many days after the concert; and not, like, too loud to where instruments and vocals became one indistinguishable wall of sound on stage—but just loud enough to provide a startling juxtaposition between the introspective, somber guitar strumming of “Thumbs,” and the howling vocals and torrential downpour of distorted chords from the final song of her set, “Night Shift.”
This song is about a boy who likes video games, and hates women
On stage, at least with her own band, Phoebe Bridgers is nothing like her internet persona—not sutble and snarky like her presence on Twitter as ‘Millennial Falcon,’ and not as delightfully self-aware as she is on Instagram.
I hesitate to say that she’s so focused that she can’t leave any room for humor or spontaneity, but there is little space available for anything other than the moody, and at times, macabre songs in her set—comprised almost entirely of material from her 2017 debut full length, Stranger in The Alps, save for a loosely organized cover of The Replacements’ “Here Comes A Regular,” in an effort to cater to the Minneapolis crowd.
The songs from Stranger in The Alps have grown slightly through live performance—Bridgers, perhaps tired of roughly playing the same batch of tunes night to night, has started using alternate phrasing and delivery of her vocals in a few moments—specifically noticeable in the slow burning set opener, “Smoke Signals.”
A number of the Stranger in The Alps songs also do not feature percussion, but to accommodate her band on stage, drums have been added to songs like “Funeral” and “Would You Rather”—and in these cases, specifically with the depressive tension and dark humor of “Funeral,” the addition of the drums felt shoe horned in.
While “Smoke Signals” was released nearly a year in advance of Stranger in The Alps, the album gained a lot of traction with its infectious, scathing second single, “Motion Sickness.” It, as well as the most recent single taken from the album, “Scott Street,” were saved until the end of Bridgers’ set.
Much had been made about who the antagonist of “Motion Sickness” is—it was revealed as part of a long interview with Bridgers from the UK based website The Telegraph, who took this bit of information and built their whole piece around it. Yes, “Motion Sickness” is about Ryan Adams—Adams produced a 7” single with Bridgers in 2015, and began romantically pursuing her shortly there after; she wrote the song after their presumably short, assuredly tumultuous affair ended.
Before launching into the snarling opening guitar line of “Motion Sickness,” Bridgers introduced the song by saying it was about a boy who likes video games and hates women.
It doesn’t take a genius to figure out that the song was about Ryan Adams—and it certainly didn’t take an interview conducted and posted seven months after the release of the album to confirm those suspicions: the line about a hypnotherapist, singing with an English accent, and the lyric “You were in a band when I was born” were all giveaways without a big reveal.
“Motion Sickness” has also undergone some changes in in its live format—it wasn’t a ‘scratch guitar’ kind of sound, or even made with a wah pedal, but there was some kind of all encompassing effect coming from lead guitarist Harrison Whitford that was a little distracting, or at least felt out of place within the song’s refrain; and even though Bridgers’ live band includes a keyboard player, the cacophonic ending of “Scott Street” was missing—though this may have been due to a problem with the live mixing; Bridgers’ set wasn’t plagued with sound issues, but there were a few times where there was some loss in dynamics.
Being a performer is great because it makes you take a step back…now I can stand up here with a big smile on my face and sing about all the bad things in my life.
A number of years ago, I went to see How to Dress Well perform at the 7th Street Entry. The Entry—basically the size of a broom closet, built in a corner off of the First Avenue ‘Main Room.’ The ‘special guest’ on the HTDW tour was an electronic based outfit named Beacon, but The Entry has a penchant for tacking on local support to shows as well—this happened once before when what was more or less a high school shoegaze/metal band was added to the bill for a show with The Twilight Sad.
The local act that opened the night was Seyah—described as a deconstructed R&B duo. I remember very little about their set, and the outfit themselves have seemingly forgotten they are even in a band—they haven’t added any additional music to their Bandcamp site since 2012, and their Facebook page has not been updated since the date of the show with How To Dress Well.
I stood near the back of The Entry with a group of friends as we watched Seyah performing, and Molly—an acquaintance we ran into at the show, surmised that the vocalist from Seyah—a woman named Tess Weinberg—was a ‘praise singer,’ specifically based on how she held the microphone, as well as her perfoming style.
Julien Baker has made no attempt to hide her spirituality—her lyrics are steeped in religious imagery and references, and in watching her perform on stage, I had a feeling that she, too, was once a ‘praise singer.’
Baker has come a very, very long way in just three years time. Her full-length debut, Sprained Ankle, arrived at the end of 2015; a little ramshackle in its structure, with Baker still not 100% confident in her abilities as a singer just yet, it still showed tremendous promise—something she fulfilled (and then some) in 2017 with her outstanding sophomore album, Turn Out The Lights.
More or less a solo performer, Baker works with an elaborate system of looping pedals to build the layers of her songs—occasionally switching over to a piano and keyboard, but mostly strumming and plucking away on a Telecaster.
I describe Baker’s performing style as one who could be a ‘praise singer,’ because of how she just loses herself completely with reckless abandon in the moment. Her microphone is positioned and mixed in such away that she stands relatively far from it, shifting left to right, back and forth, belting out long, powerful notes that come from someplace incredibly deep down within her tiny frame.
Baker’s set was the longest of the night, spanning 11 songs and running just shy of an hour. With two albums to her name, and a few non-albums singles, she more or less split her time evenly between material from Sprained Ankle—which obviously have much more strength and confidence behind them now that she has started growing as a performer, and Turn Out The Lights, including ending her time with a devastating double shot of the titular track and the equally as emotionally charged “Appointments.”
Baker also seemed to have the most in the audience specifically there to see her—including a large group of people right in front, singing along with every word, whom she thanked at one point during her very, very soft spoken in between song banter. The audience thanked her in return, but she said she was expected to sing, and that the crowd’s response to her songs provided her with a gift, and extended the meaning of those songs, which was why she was able to sing them all with a huge smile across her face, even though nearly all of them are about horrible things.
The trio of Lucy Dacus, Phoebe Bridgers, and Julien Baker arrived on stage, together, at roughly 10:30 p.m.—only a few moments after Baker wrapped up her own set, and three hours after the show began.
The boygenius EP is short—only six songs, and it is expected that it will be played, in full, during what is more or less an encore to the three sets you’ve watched. While it is played in full, the order of the songs has been altered slightly, and the songs themselves, just recorded this summer, have already started to take on different lives.
Opening with the slow burning, remorseful “Souvenir,” already a bit of a sparse number on the EP, the trio strip it down even more until it’s simply Baker on the mandolin and Bridgers on the guitar—similarly to how it was performed on the group’s recent “Tiny Desk” concert.
From there, members of both Bridgers’ and Dacus’ band filed back out—Dacus’ guitarist, Jacob Blizzard, played lead with the group on “Bite The Hand,” while Harrison Whitford sat in for the simmering “Stay Down.”
It was during the boygenius set that it seemed like Bridgers, Dacus, and Baker had the most fun—possibly because they were playing together, and playing off of one another. The group is like an inside joke that they are almost on the cusp of letting you in on. There was a near Wilson-Phillips moment of pop power when all three hit the “I didn’t say I’d be alright” on the Bridgers-led “Me and My Dog.” The crowd also seemed like it had suddenly been given permission to cut loose during this song—throwing up hands and jumping in place as the hilarious and dark lyrics continued.
The penultimate track of the night, “Salt in The Wound,” gave Baker the chance to show off just what a guitarist she is—while her solo material is complex, yes, rarely, if ever, does she get the chance to shred or indulge in a blistering solo, which is why her star turn near the end of the song was so surprising, and awe inspiring. So much so that, perhaps in a staged bit of humor amongst the women, Dacus and Bridgers took to either side, bowing in worship to their band mate.
The show ends, finally, with the trio alone on stage, performing the EP’s final track, “Ketchum, ID,” a bittersweet ode to being a young traveling musician. The recorded version was captured in one take, using one microphone—in a live setting, with Bridgers playing the acoustic guitar, the three stepped to the edge of the First Avenue stage, and sang the song without amplification, encouraging the audience to join in the refrain—“I am never anywhere, anywhere I go. When I’m home I’m never there long enough to know.”
First Avenue, as a venue, is incredibly overrated, coasting on its name recognition, while not offering much in return; it attracts a notoriously shitty crowd of people who drink too much (I famously once almost got into a physical alteration during a Bon Iver show in 2008), or people who come to simply converse with their friend the entire time.
The crowd at First Avenue on Saturday night surprised me—they could get restless during the long silences while guitars were tuned, but overall, everybody was very respectful, and kept their mouths shut during the quietest moments, like the final sing along from boygenius, or some of Baker’s material.
I was kind of expecting to ugly cry at some point during the night—waiting for the tears to start falling during the most visceral songs from Julien Baker’s set, the way they’ve destroyed me so many times in the privacy of my own home. Those tears didn’t come though—maybe I was too distracted by the man who would allow his head to bob into my line of vision. He, too, was distracted by how utterly bored and irritated his very blonde girlfriend was becoming throughout the night—they left after Julien Baker, missing out on the six song boygenius set completely.
Or maybe I was just too tired—my ‘concert bro’ for the evening was my friend Scott, who has gone to a handful of shows with me over the years. He has a desk job, and was already concerned about his back following Phoebe Bridgers’ set. I, on the other hand, more or less stand all day, every day, but even then, I felt a dip in my own energy after Julien Baker, and tried to get a second wind as the clock neared 11 p.m.
Like Lucy Dacus hoped, I was trying to feel strong.