In the April of 1999 I went town to Binghamton University with a few friends from Syracuse to catch that school’s year end Student only concert or block party, or whatever they call that thing down there. While I was certainly not an undergrad at that particular university, I was definitely a fan of the headlining act on the bill. After sitting through a few mediocre bands including some guy named David Mead who sounded like your average white guy Jack Johnson/Dave Matthews hippie crooner the day’s anticipation gave way to satisfaction as Liz Phair took the stage. Before she started into her set I had been filled with skepticism because a friend who had previously seen her play sometime during the run of her first two albums had told me that she wasn’t very good live. Not only was Ms. Phair excellent that day, but she had blown me away with an assorted selection of songs from her first three albums, 1993’s landmark Exile In Guyville, her able 1994 follow up Whip Smart and her more recent, slightly more adult sounding, but still ever so enjoyable whitechocolatespaceegg.
Despite having heard of her tentative stage demeanor and previous disappointing performance, there was a certain confidence that her songs exuded that made up for maybe not the most dynamic stage presence. I wasn’t expecting a KISS show and I didn’t get one. I got a quality rock show from a great artist at the peak of her performing powers.
Fast forward two months later, I was living with that same friend who had raised doubt about Ms. Phair’s performance prowess in April, at an NYU dorm on 10th Street and 3rd Avenue as we were both ensconced in Summer internships for the next few months. One evening my brother called me with the news that the same Liz Phair of whom both my roommate and I were huge fans was playing a show at a Calvin Klein event and we would be able to grace the venue with our attendance despite it being a charity event to which we were not contributing any funds.
Later that evening we witnessed a very intimate set that probably consisted of no more than seven or eight songs. Before the show, my brother was backstage taking photographs for the event and got the artist in question to autograph a bag for me. Being the pathetic fan that I was, I held that bag up to try and show Liz the entire show. I was twenty years old and I was an idiot. Nonetheless, it was a rare experience that I probably didn’t think I could ever duplicate.
Several weeks ago, while looking through a bevy of emails in my Inbox deciding what to trash, I came upon a bulletin which alerted me to a special show at Hiro Ballroom featuring the distinguished Miss Phair, who would be performing her 1993 opus Exile In Guyville in it’s entirety. Thrilled at the prospect I immediately asked my friend if he was interested in going and when the time came around to attempt to purchase tickets, I was on it. Unfortunately, “on it” meant more like cable company on it or electric company on it. I was an hour too late and by the time I placed my order for ticketmaster the two night run was all sold out.
However, yesterday afternoon, as I sat in dispose in a very private area of my house, I received a text message from my friend Marie. In said text message it inquired as to whether I had any interest in attending Liz Phair’s performance the very next day for the show at Hiro Ballroom that I could not get tickets for. Jazzed isn’t a good way to describe how I felt, but I’d like it to suffice for now. I immediately accepted her invitation throwing any other plans I might have had for Thursday evening into the recycling bin of alcoholic indulgence. I’ve had my issues with Ms. Phair’s musical output over the past few years, but this was a one of a kind experience that I was not going to miss.
It was around 7pm this evening when I left my apartment in Park Slope to meet Marie in Manhattan for the show. I was running a little late because I was fumbling with a few personal belongings, deciding if I needed to bring my iPod on the train or something to read. God forbid I had to spend thirty minutes on the 2/3 not listening to music or reading something. What did people do before the advent of electronics? I’m sure they weren’t too concerned about occupying their time in transport when they were sitting in the back of the wagon dying of hay fever or wondering where there next meal came from. In any case, I decided to go it without musical or literary accompaniment and rough it. I did have my camera with me, but that was for the show.
I got out of the Subway at 14th Street and 7th Avenue at exactly 7:29, one minute before I was to meet Marie. Fortunately, Marie is a patient person because I still had a few blocks to walk as Hiro was at the corner of 16th and 9th. When I happened upon Marie she was reading as people are wont to do when they’re waiting, we said our hellos. Marie had gotten the tickets for free from her promoter friend who I met outside the door and who also was generous enough to give us drink tickets. This was the life. When we got inside we found that we had a booth reserved for us and two other people as well. Things were getting better before they got worse. It was certainly a dose of good fortune.
The rest of our night would be a mixture of feast and famine. At around 8:35pm as Marie and I enjoyed our maiden drink, Liz Phair stepped out on stage to a warm applause and a high level of enthusiasm. She alerted the audience that she was wearing heels and made an allusion to a lyric in the first song off of Exile in Guyville saying that tonight she’d be standing 6” 1′ instead of 5” 5 adding three inches to the latter number. And just like that she was off launching into “6’1”, her shaky, nearly monotone timbre filling the room with a palpable excitement. The characterization of her voice isn’t meant to be an insult, it’s what gives her music such rich character. It’s not concerned with being pretty, it’s more along the lines of a bluntly honest conversational tone that’s not being sugar coated with melisma or acrobatics that span the vocal ranges. Conversely, that’s probably the reason her fans have largely ignored her last two albums as they seemed to be efforts to craft pretty pop songs over forthright ones. I guess you can’t blame a girl for trying to make some money.
In the early going, Marie and I noticed a group of girls standing to the right of our booth. In our estimation, they couldn’t have been over the age of 24. We assumed they were in the audience to either hear her more recent pop songs, despite the fact that it was plain by the reason for the show that those songs wouldn’t be played. They were dressed as if they were going to see Sex And The City on opening night, despite the fact it had already occurred. The lot of them had Cosmos in their hand and were blabbing aloud over the music during “Glory” and Marie turned to them and gave them a nice “Shush!” It was then that these kids retreated to the bar in back of our booth where I heard one of them utter, “it’s her 21st birthday! Let’s do shots!” So yes, these girls were six years old when Exile In Guyville was released. As they stood in the back getting their drunk on and loudly cavorting, Liz Phair continued to play her landmark album that these girls probably could’ve taken a lesson or two from.
With the kids relegated to the rear of the venue fading in and out of earshot and probably taking frequent cigarette breaks, a new threat to musical enjoyment emerged. A couple that looked to be on their second or third date who were perpetually at that point in the date where conversation just flows stood nearby datin’ and conversatin’ with little to no regard for the surrounding masses. The girl sitting next to Marie shushed them, and they dropped out for a bit. They along with the girls got repeated scoldings, but were fairly unaffected. New rule: if someone has to tell you more than once at a rock concert to shut up, you’re talking too loud and you’re probably a huge asshole.
All distractions aside, the show itself was really enjoyable. I think the thing that kind of caught me off guard about it was that I had never seen an entire show that was just one album played straight through. There was no mystery about what would come next. I knew that “Canary” would be followed by “Mesmerizing”, “Fuck and Run”, “Girls, Girls, Girls” and “Divorce Song”.
Another positive thing that caught my attention was the amount of maturity in the audience. It wasn’t only that most of the crowd resembled the same late 20’s to late 30’s indie rock fans of yore, but also it was the maturity level. Nobody yelled in celebration when the C word was uttered during “Dance of The Seven Veils” and there was not one morsel of merriment sounded when she alerted the males in the audience she wanted to be their “blow job queen” during “Flower”. It was all very refreshing and quite a delight to experience.
I took measured delight as the album motored along towards the end. I thought back fondly on singing along to both “Stratford On Guy” and “Strange Loop” on my long car rides to and from Syracuse and realized that I hadn’t listened to Guyville straight through in a very long time. By the end of the show I was extremely glad that I was getting the chance to run through the whole thing yet again, but this time with a live flavor.
As the last note in Strange Loop was sounded and Liz thanked everyone, I wondered how much if any of an encore she could come out for. She was only supposed to play one album. Had she planned any more surprises. She was only playing four dates on this tour, I couldn’t imagine she had rehearsed a terrible many songs.
After the tiniest of waits, she came out yet again and sat down at the piano, hammering out a great version of “Chopsticks” off of Whip-Smart, followed by “May Queen” off of that same album, which had been yelled out as a request when she re-took the stage. Her guitar playing was a tad bit tentative but it was understandable. It seemed as though it had been awhile since playing these songs and it’s not always like riding a bike. Take it from me. I’m not a musician.
The show finished up on a positively unique and rather fun note. Liz started off playing her take on the famed classic rock song “Wild Thing” which was part of her Girlysound Demos from before Exile. Obviously rusty, she stopped playing at one point and solicited help from a guy in the front row. She let him come up on stage and help out. At first she thought he was just going to sing the lyrics, but he took over on guitar duties and allowed her to pick up the lyrics of the last verse. Finally, the show ended with a decent rendition of “Polyester Bride” that sent this audience member home plenty happy.
Liz Phair @ Hiro Ballroom NYC 6/26/08
|2. Help Me Mary|
|4. Dance of the Seven Veils|
|5. Never Said|
|6. Soap Star Joe|
|7. Explain It to Me|
|10. Fuck and Run|
|11. Girls! Girls! Girls!|
|12. Divorce Song|
|15. Johnny Sunshine|
|18. Strange Loop
20. May Queen
21. Wild Thing
22. Polyester Bride