There’s always been an element of the changeling to Liz Phair.
From her classic indie debut Exile in Guyville through the more standard “alternative” fare of Whip-Smart and whitechocolatespaceegg to the aspirationally mainstream output of her later career, Phair has never been particularly interested in staying in one place for too long. She came to prominence at a time when every band sought to maintain an established sound and every decent record seemed to invent a new sub-genre, but her career is one of twists and turns (some very good, some pretty bad).
Saturday night’s performance in First Avenue’s Mainroom was an acknowledgement of those twists and turns. With a setlist that touched upon most of her career but stayed firmly rooted in Guyville’s most classic songs, Phair showed no fear of changing those songs to represent who she is in the here and now. Opening with a dense, effects-layered rendition of “Flower,” her originally minimalist and notorious ode to infatuation/satirical twist on the male gaze, Phair made it plain that while you were going to recognize the old stuff, it wasn’t going to sound the same. It was going to sound like where she was at.
In an era where classic ’90s acts come to your town to help you hear things exactly as they were back then, this was both refreshing and a call-back to her connections to the rock and roll of an earlier era. Guyville was a brilliant distillation of an ’80s John Hughes suburban existence into a lurid, complicated musical noir presented as a refutation and response to the Rolling Stones’ Exile On Main Street. 2018 Liz Phair and her backing band play 1993 Liz Phair songs the way 2018 Rolling Stones play 1960s Rolling Stones songs. If Mick and Keith don’t have to don the old suits and recreate that classic sound, why should she?
What this meant was an amped-up version of “Mesmerizing” and “Fuck and Run” as an alt-pop banger that felt positively Swiftian (or at least, Clarksonian). You got “Supernova” and “Polyester Bride” fairly straight while “Stratford-On-Guy” had a dark swagger.
You also got some of Phair’s material from roads that at the time might have seemed best left untaken, though I’m willing to admit that some of it might be worth a revisit. New song “The Game” (“It’s about the end of a relationship, what’s new?” she joked) didn’t seem as cohesive as the rest of the set, and “Blood Keeper” (performed as a duet with Speedy Ortiz’s Sadie Dupuis), a lost track from the Scream 2 soundtrack, sounded like a wrong turn.
But material from her mid-00’s pop era was solid, even as Phair acknowledged the crowd’s predilections—ending her set with “Why Can’t I,” she joked, “I know you’re thinking, ‘She can’t close with pop,’” then remained onstage, chatting for a few moments before leading the crowd in a raucous demand for an encore. With her band back on stage, she knocked out “Fuck and Run” and a version of “Divorce Song” big enough for a hockey arena before leaving the stage with a giant smile on her face. For a performer who 20 years ago seemed either overwhelmed by the crowd or like she hadn’t figured out how to be a live presence, that smile was the best part of the show: Liz Phair the aging rock star seems to be having a lot more fun than Liz Phair the aspiring rock star ever did.
Cinco de Mayo
Everything to Me
Help Me Mary
Take a Look
Why Can't I?
Fuck and Run
The crowd: Last night’s throng had this distinctly “we’re in this together” ‘90s alt-rock vibe where strangers shouted about how great the show was to each other between songs and loudly opined about Phair’s Jazzmaster. It was also the sort of crowd where dudes bothered to look around apologetically after shoving in front of you if you were a woman—then forgot about pretending to care if they blocked your view within two songs. I feel like there’s a metaphor there.
Overheard in the crowd: On the topic of one of my least favorite Liz Phair singles, “Cinco De Mayo”—“It’s got bunny rabbits in it, it’s a great song.”
Overheard in the crowd runner-up: Hilarious guy next to me while I took notes: “Will you text my wife and tell her I’m going to be late?” Hey hilarious guy’s wife: I hope he made it home okay.
Notes on the opener: Speedy Ortiz of Northampton, Massachusetts, sounds like a combination of ’90s influences that you know, love, and have probably paid to see on a reunion tour in the past year or so. (This makes sense if you’ve ever been to Northampton.) It was striking how tightly they held to sounds that Phair herself has flipped around over the years.
Random n otebook dump: Re-inventing how a song sounds is a risky proposition: I once bought an “Eric Burdon of the Animals” tape at a New Mexico gas station that sounded like he’d recorded “House of the Rising Sun” with a cut-rate mariachi band. Phair, on the other hand, is taking those stripped-down indie rock songs and making them HUGE.
Critic’s bias: Way back in 1996, a dear friend of mine volunteered to be my date to a wedding in my hometown 800 miles away so I wouldn’t have to be alone, surrounded by people I hadn’t spoken to since high school. On the drive, I made her listen to Beggars Banquet and Let It Bleed and the first two Dillinger Four seven-inches. She made me listen to her then-favorite record, Exile In Guyville. We’ve been married for 19 topsy-turvy years, and “Divorce Song” is still our jam.