When the trend of playing classic albums in their entireties at concerts blew up in the mid-aughts, I wasn’t a fan. Pitchfork Fest ’07, for instance, brought a trio of underwhelming examples, as Slint failed to capture the magic of SPIDERLAND in the daylight sun, GZA made a half-assed attempt to speed through LIQUID SWORDS essentially all by himself, and Sonic Youth thumbed through DAYDREAM NATION like bored teenagers. When they came out for their encore and played new material, it was clear that THAT was what they’d prefer to be playing; why force yourself to go through these motions?
Since then, though, I’ve been more than convinced that the concept CAN be pulled off properly. I once made the trip to Cleveland and back in 24 hours just to see Katatonia perform LAST FAIR DEAL GONE DOWN all the way through and that was way worth it. I saw Bruce Springsteen do BORN TO RUN in 2009 and it was so good I decided I could never see Bruce Springsteen again. I’ve seen Rush do MOVING PICTURES (not to mention side A of 2112 and almost an entire CLOCKWORK ANGELS) and it was of course flawless. I got to see Roger Waters perform THE WALL and that was a stupendous production, a dream come true in a lot of ways. And I’ve seen Les Claypool do entire Rush AND Pink Floyd albums as well as his own! Patti Smith doing HORSES was an incomparable treat, and I wouldn’t want to forget about way back in 1997 getting to see The Who perform QUADROPHENIA, probably the cream of the crop.
Some of these were favorite albums of mine and some weren’t, but I don’t think any of ‘em had as big of a direct impact on my life as Liz Phair’s EXILE IN GUYVILLE, which Phair is playing in full on her current tour. I didn’t have older siblings, or anyone, really, to turn me onto underground music when I was a teenager; all I had was the Janesville Public Library and ROLLING STONE magazine, which I still like to believe was not completely devoid of merit in those days. If nothing else, it published a small blurb about this album before it was out that convinced me to buy it, and from the moment I first hit ‘play’ my world was turned on its side. Liz made all my grunge heroes look like pretentious pop stars; she may have been inventing her own guitar chords but her lyrics made ACTUAL SENSE, crafting this insanely ambitious conceptual arc that was equally poignant and frivolous in execution, and it was disorienting and thrilling and I was one person before and a different person when the album was over.
Although by some measures Phair has never surpassed this 1993 debut LP, she has made more fans over the years through various personae entirely unlike the one(s) she displayed on GUYVILLE. She’s been a genuine chameleon, unabashedly following artistic whims without allowing any project or image to become too precious to let go of. Saturday night was a homecoming show and she brought 30 years of showbiz ups and downs to bear on this material at the sold-out Chicago Theatre. There weren’t a ton of surprises but all kinds of subtle and not-so-subtle alterations to the beloved album, never sacrificing any of its mythical character.
You may recall Phair’s exceedingly dry vocals as a hallmark of GUYVILLE’s charm; to the dismay of gen-x music critics, however, Liz developed a more traditionally melodic singing style over the years, and like most humans who can sing well, she’s likely found that it’s more rewarding than a deadpan delivery. As such, the various transpositions of key were the most jarring aspect of Saturday’s performance; it’s been 30 years of singing these songs and feeling the exact same vibrations in my chest, after all. Prior to this tour, most of ‘em hadn’t made it into a ‘regular’ Phair setlist in decades if ever, so she’s taken the opportunity to make some of ‘em better showcases for her voice. It works out well as an audience member, too, once you get used to it.
However, the biggest surprises came in two of the album’s most bare-bones tunes. “Girls! Girls! Girls!” transformed into a full-band power-waltz halfway through, a killer twist. Then, three songs later, “Flower” also began normally, until Liz started singing the first verse an octave higher than what you’d expect. The band slowly crept in underneath until it became a virtual post-rock bludgeoning by the time she sang “I’ll fuck you ‘til your dick is blue”. The message was clear: in the ‘90s a girl had to sing that part quietly, whereas nowadays, she can get away with murder.
I fully expected a lot of storytelling in between songs; there was very little of it, except for a little scripted message about revisiting memories from your formative years and realizing they were some of your best years despite all the confusion and agony. That may have been a bit of self-serving justification for the tour as well as a parental cliché from a 56-year-old mom; it’s also a self-evident truth. You can only experience a transition into adulthood once, and with any luck the joys stick in your memory more clearly than the pain, and even the pain seems sweeter the further you get from it. (YMMV) GUYVILLE was an incredibly risky statement to put out there as your introduction to the world, and Phair has spoken candidly over the years about her uphill battle in the male-dominated Chicago scene and the industry at large. Nowadays you hear so much Phair influence in indie rock, you almost forget that people only talked about her lyrics back in the day; whichever aspect you focus on, it’s clear that she’s having the last laugh. When the set concluded with the uplifting roar of “Stratford-on-Guy” (“It’s the Chicago song!” said Liz) and the defiant anthem “Strange Loop”, I still hadn’t detected anything about any of these songs that hasn’t aged well.
Still, Phair DID put out a well-received album a couple years ago that she never toured on, so I WAS hoping to hear, like, a song or two from it at the end, maybe? Or how about a GIRLYSOUND track? (I managed to restrain myself from screaming “CARNIVOOOOORE”; you’re welcome.) No such luck; we’re making no bones about the pure nostalgia trip, but Chicago did get the longest encore of the tour: two songs each from the three albums after GUYVILLE. And just like at every single Liz Phair show I’ve caught in the 21st century, when she played “Extraordinary”, the crowd went absolutely bonkers. That’s from her self-titled 2003 album, the one that was supposedly career suicide, the ‘sell-out’, the one I’d dismissed because I bought right into that stupid hipster narrative at the time. But the more I kept going to see Liz live, the more I experienced the way this song (as well as “Why Can’t I?”) connected with other fans, the more I came to suspect it was ME who had lost the thread somewhere. You can sit there with your vain hopes for b-sides or you can consider what ELSE you might be missing. It could be right there in front of you.