The last time I saw Julien Baker live was in June 2019. She played Chicago’s House of Vans, one of the last shows she played before cancelling the rest of her 2019 tour dates for health reasons; finishing the college degree she had abandoned to pursue her music career; and trying to reevaluate herself, her beliefs, and her beliefs about herself, including her music.
In 2015, Baker’s Bandcamp album of nine sparse, sad songs, Sprained Ankle, vaulted her into critical acclaim when 6131 Records reissued it as her debut in 2015. An even more atmospheric sophomore record, Turn Out The Lights, followed on Matador Records in 2017. In recent interviews about her new, full-band third record, Little Oblivions, Baker says she realized that she had previously limited herself to minimalism—herself and one or two instruments—out of an arbitrary artistic ideal. Though she still plays nearly all the instruments on the studio recording of Little Oblivions, her inclusion of drums, electronic samples, and a more traditional rock sound opens up many more possibilities for her live show and an entirely different ethos, though we may have to wait until touring resumes to truly experience the new Julien Baker sound.
Past Julien Baker shows have featured Baker solo, on piano or guitar with a pedal board almost as big as she is, or with a single violinist. She has broken my heart every time she has stood on stage alone and sung “Everybody Does”: “You’re gonna run when you find out who I am / I know I’m a pile of filthy wreckage / You will wish you’d never touched…You’re gonna run, it’s all right—everybody does.” One would expect the closing lines of “Heatwave,” the second song on Little Oblivions, to hit the same way: “On a long spiral down / Before I make it to the ground / I’ll wrap Orion’s belt around my neck / And kick the chair out.” But somehow, at the Little Oblivions release show, on a stage with a full band and backing vocals behind her, Baker’s suicidal ideation comes across less like a threat. By becoming less hyper-focused on Baker herself, Baker’s music and performance become less emotionally wrought and more purely enjoyable.
The stark difference between solo Baker and band-backed Baker is evident in the control experiment: ”Song in E.” During this song, her band clears out. Baker sings at the keyboard by herself, but it no longer feels like she is squeezing the entire show out of her pores as she has in the past. Many shoulders now help bear the heavy mantle of her live show.
Because this was the Little Oblivions album release gig, most of the songs came from Baker’s new album. Halfway though she played a couple of older tracks—a full-band version of Turn Out The Lights’ title track where percussion and backing vocals replaced some of her cathedral-filling reverb, and the real treat: a rare performance of her Sub Pop single “Tokyo.” At this point, it finally felt like the show was opening up into a real show instead of just a pandemic livestream. The heavier version of “Tokyo” felt freeing, especially as Julien and her childhood friend/drummer Matt Gilliam headbanged in unison on the “Highlight Reel”-like outro.
Though Baker’s band performed many of the songs pretty faithfully to the studio recordings, Baker went back to her more hardcore roots on a few songs, adding a little bit of shred on songs like “Hardline” and “Highlight Reel,” where she even gave a little bit of Este Haim-like “bass face.” On the outro to the finale, “Ziptie,” the band went particularly hard, seeming to breathe in unison before launching into a gnarly outro.
Though Julien Baker’s music now more closely resembles arena rock, this show didn’t bring as much emotion as past live recordings of Baker—particularly her 2018 Brooklyn Steel performance on the boygenius tour with Phoebe Bridgers and Lucy Dacus. Part of the reason might be Baker’s vocal style staying the same while the music around it changed—whereas her instances of breathy falsetto could wander over lonely guitar arpeggios, they feel inadequate when there’s a wall of sound underneath; I found myself wanting her to project more for all the moments that felt like they should be emotional highs—”I don’t need a savior / I need you to take me home” on “Relative Fiction,” “What if it’s all black, baby? / All the time” on “Hardline.”
It also doesn’t help that the show was pre-recorded (at Analog at Hutton Hotel in Nashville). Chicago-based Audiotree Live streamed the show at three different time-zone-friendly times: evening in Australia, the UK, and the US. Though the format allowed international audiences to experience the show at much better times of the day, there’s a sense of risk and unpredictability in a live performance that doesn’t quite come through in a recorded performance. It’s been over a year since I’ve stood in front of a stage at a live gig and been in awe of the fact that I was there, experiencing that music at that exact moment. Even when the performers are headbanging on screen, it’s really hard to feel overwhelmed—or any type of whelmed—watching a stream on your couch with your favorite blanket.
Though much of the set would likely have hit much harder live, Baker’s Staged set showed the range of potential for her live shows when touring returns. I’m looking forward to hearing a full-band reimagining of “Sour Breath” (a la the Devil Wears Prada version), the metal version of “Appointments,” and the day we can all headbang to Little Oblivions together.