Jon: We’re breaking ground here at Middle of the Row with our first concert co-review. On Thursday, November 15th, Lauren and I ventured on down to The Pageant here in St. Louis to see Lucy Dacus, Phoebe Bridgers, and Julien Baker. As ardent Baker admirers, this was a must-see show for both of us. And ooooooof, what a show it was.
Lauren: Ooo buddy, you’ve got that right. For anyone who knows me, it’ll come as no surprise that I can count the number of concerts I’ve been to this year on one finger. Blame it on the digestive issues, the anxiety, or the migraines, but I don’t get out much. That said, I wasn’t going to permit anything to come between me and this show.
Now for some context: following a recommended viewing from Jon of Julien Baker’s performance of “Turn Out the Lights” on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert, I’ve definitely been what he politely describes as an ardent fan. Others might use the words unabashedly obsessed with what has become my new “just let me lay here and feel my feelings” musical accompaniment following an unforeseen and much-needed shift (RIP “Play Crack the Sky”), and they would be much closer to the truth. I mean, I was almost willing to infiltrate enemy territory all by my lonesome when she visited Columbia earlier this spring (go Jayhawks!); considering my last paragraph, that’s saying something. Fortunately, I didn’t have to ruminate at length on what the louder portion of my internal dialogue argued to be my most regrettable decision of the year thanks to her return to the state with boygenius. So not only did I get to see Baker live, but a burgeoning fandom of Dacus and Bridgers’ solo catalogs had quite the jumping off point as well.
Jon: I also went in with low exposure to Dacus and Bridgers though I will say my ultimate frisbee buddy talking Dacus up at the doors had me preparing for the show with newfound anticipation. Immediately I saw why she, Bridgers, and Baker were contemporaries: their voices all have a modest haunting quality to them. That is, when they aren’t belting with all of their emotional gravitas. Dacus definitely brought a more versatile sound to the show seeing as she could switch from moderate tempo indie rock numbers to straight up classic rock styled jams. I never expected to be bopping my head so much at this show, that’s for sure.
Lauren: And I wasn’t prepared for the sternum thump that comes along with a deceptively chipper sounding, multi-piece band steadily backing Dacus up in songs such as “I Don’t Wanna Be Funny Anymore.” Seriously, when that drum kit got wheeled out following the bare vulnerability of her opening song (a song that I am impatiently waiting to hear again) I was genuinely flabbergasted. We’re talking anime levels of surprise, which is a ridiculous reaction to have, I know. I can’t rationalize this response past the mental math of the fewer the instruments the sadder the songs, in an “I ordered a healthy helping of melancholy with a single weeping guitar on the side” sort of way.
Fortunately, my irrationally triggered questioning squint didn’t have time to set during the seconds it took for me to realize just how dumb that knee-jerk reaction was. Drums are just drums, this isn’t suddenly a Panic! at the Disco show, you have not been bamboozled. Oh, and Dacus is unsurprisingly awesome, with a voice that quickly lulled me into a strong sense of comfort, making it easy to lose myself in exploring the tonal dichotomy presented in what she does with her voice, lyrics, and the melody accompanying them.
Jon: But while all of these artists definitely occupy the same lyrical and thematic space of real-life reflections on somber subjects, what’s surprising is how different their actual music is from each other. If Dacus was the opening indie rock act, Bridgers was the Americana/folk billing. Talk about dichotomy, it was baffling to hear such a mature and refined grassroots sound coming from someone perhaps too young to remember when country music didn’t suck. Her ethereal voice and steady fingerpicking resonated on their own, but her full band support, including lap steel guitar and violin, was a welcome accompaniment. The entire time I was wondering (and hoping) if she had been nominated for a CMA the night before.
Lauren: Jesus take the earrings off of Carrie Underwood, cuz those are fighting words (see, I too can make CMA references). Granted I can’t say anything more on the matter of when country music was good because I was too busy being left out of who gets to be which Spice Girl in my six person friend group to be listening to anything past the easily accessible Dixie Chicks and Shania Twain albums my sister had.
But enough about my childhood. Where you had your frisbee buds showing up for Dacus, I had two girls to my left who came prepared with every single word to every single Bridgers’ song. It was impressive, but not at all surprising. On top of being very personable on stage, Bridgers’ has this understated quality to her voice (I swear that’s a compliment) that somehow makes her performance of songs, that share a similar dichotomy of sound to Dacus’ music, all the more intimate. Ans she did it all the while looking like the cooler, indie folk sister of season finale Sabrina (also a compliment). How could you not love someone who has all this going for them, AND can then make a bike horn work in a song? I’m still gravitating more towards songs like “Funeral” and “Killer” as I explore the depths of her album, but that bike horn in “Scott Street” gets me every time.
Jon: Hey, it’s funny you mention sad songs, Lauren, cause (in my best NPH voice) “Haaaaaaaaaaave you met Julien Baker?” Oooooooof. Honestly, I was partly filled with the anxiety that comes with seeing one of your dearest artists for the first time. There’s this fear that you’ve built up too much anticipation and expectation with numerous listens and Youtube views. It’s unreasonable to put this kind of expectation for any artist, but for someone whose music is so emotionally resonant, it’s almost impossible not to. Silly me, it’s Julien Baker, so of course she’s going to blow me out of the water.
As the stage was stripped of all equipment save for her guitar, piano, and mic stands, so was my psyche of all its emotional defenses. The amount of control she displayed was impeccable: over her guitar and the lullaby/hymn-like tones and loops she was emanating from them, over her voice and the ability to limit it to a spine-tingling whisper and stretch it to a soul-crushing bellow, and finally over my emotions as she guided them every which way down a path of remorse and hope.
Now this sounds crazy, but I only wished the audience participated more. Most of Baker’s songs do have an awe-inspiring/silencing quality to them that leaves one content to just bask in her voice and melodies, but I was kinda longing for a sing-along, akin to when she performed “Rejoice” at Calvin College. Her music is so incredibly relatable, yet I found that I was quieting myself when I thought I was getting too loud.
Lauren: There was definitely a palpable silence while Baker performed. As opposed to the two girls who sang along with Bridgers, the only person I regularly heard participating was the man to the left of those two repeating certain lines from each song as Baker geared up for the next. “The harder I swim, the faster I sink. The harder I swim… The. Faster. I. Sink.” And then he’d just let it hang there. Which I get, a lot of Baker’s lyrics hit hard; just ask the guy in front of us swaying along. It was part interpretive dance, part Neo getting riddled with rounds in bullet time, all entrancing.
So while it may have been eerily quiet at times on our side of the proscenium arch while Baker performed, it was clearly not from a lack of enthusiasm or gratitude for being a part of this experience. If anything, it was quite the opposite. Me quietly mouthing the words to myself was only 5% a fear that I am actually as tone deaf as my father, the other 95% had more to do with the live performance variants Baker was belting at the crowd. Maybe it was just something as simple as switching things up to not get bored with performing songs over and over again (which I highly doubt), but hearing these songs sung differently than I’ve heard repeatedly over the past year gave me pause when I started to sing to myself. The variations of emphasis made her words seem as if they were still very much living, breathing parts of her that meant as much to her now as I’m assuming they did when they were first written. To sing along almost felt intrusive.
So that’s 5% tone deaf fear, 95% awe inspired reverence.
Jon: Shoutout to Swaying Nick (that’s what I’m calling him). He was exhibiting way more gumption than anyone I’ve ever seen. After Baker’s set and a quick high five from Swaying Nick (apparently he could hear me singing under my breath), it was time for all the ladies to combine like the Planeteers or Voltron team members to form supergroup boygenius. For a show that had seemed so somber up to this point, coming together as boygenius was when each artist cut loose. It was clear that this was an ensemble assembled out of love, at the very least based on the matching jackets emblazoned with their initials that they came out in. But aside from the adorable attire, watching all three women sing together in unison and harmony was the cherry on top. Bridgers and Dacus belted louder and longer than previously and Baker freaking shredded her Telecaster to the joy of everyone present. Their acapella closer with a lone guitar and their soaring voices ended the night superbly.
Lauren: And I hope the culmination of the show was as satisfying for them as it was for us. Unfortunately, I can’t help but feel like we may have left boygenius feeling disappointed, or even underappreciated, as we let them down with the continuation of silence from the crowd during “Ketchum, ID.” They asked for our participation and we blew it, really living up to the title of flyover state. The shame face was real. As a part of the audience, it was clear that the walk out into the night was full of nothing but elation, and I hope all three performers know that. And that they come back in future tours. Please come back!
See Julien Baker, Phoebe Bridgers, and Lucy Dacus on tour at the following places:
November 27 Oakland, CA at the Fox Theater
November 29 San Diego, CA at The Observatory North Park
November 30 Los Angeles, CA at Wiltern