June 23, 2008
By Jennifer Maerz
Photos by Chrissy Loader
Better Than: Seeing Liz Phair in 1993.
So the story goes that Liz Phair was such a terrible performer in 1993, the year that Exile in Guyville came out, that Ira Glass wrote her a scathing letter critiquing one of her Chicago performances. Ira Glass, as in Ira Glass from This American Life. He hated her show so much he sent a personal note to the band. I can’t remember why exactly – the details are in the DVD portion of the re-released Exile, which comes out today. But it had something to do with Phair not knowing how to translate those loose recordings into a tight show.
Fifteen years after the fact, Phair knows how to play those Exile songs perfectly. She might be kinda rusty on the material outside of that, but last night at the Fillmore she nailed those singular songs better than she nails the blowjob in “Flower.” She gave the sold out house of 30 and 40-somethings the show they’d all dreamed about when they first got their meaty paws on Guyville’s songs for the sexually-aggressive romantic. And hey, if it came a decade and change late, that’s cool with me. I never saw her the first round, and her voice now has a strength and confidence that the recording couldn’t touch.
But really, with this Fillmore crowd, Phair could do no wrong. Men and women were screaming for her from the minute she took the stage with a fervency I haven’t seen since, well, a couple weeks back when the ladies wet their panties for Flight of the Conchords. They also yelled out requests, until Phair – clad in a very ‘90s look of white leggings under cut off jean shorts – said, “This is one of those shows where you can be assured I’ll play your song.” She grinned and added, “If it’s on the record, I’ll play it, in order.”
And she ran through all the hits, starting with “6ft 1in” through “Fuck and Run” and “Divorce Song” and “Strange Loop.” She started out kinda shy, beginning one song as soon as the last one ended. But the crowd filled every silence with a cheer or a vote of confidence like “We love you” and her backing band of indie dudes punched out every last track.
By the fourth or fifth song, she was even telling stories. Before she played “Explain It To Me,” she briefed the crowd. “This song was a big fat heartbreaker for me,” she said. “It still kinda is … [The guy it’s about] is still alive and well, amazingly. If you watch the DVD you’ll know who this is about.” (That dude is Urge Overkill’s Nash Kato, Phair’s inspiration for much of Exile.) When she finished the song, she added more: “I stayed in my apartment one summer getting stoned … I sat there listening to Exile on Main St. and stewing over my failed relationship. Only a girl would understand,” she added with another of her many beaming smiles. But this being San Francisco, the ladies weren’t the only ones feeling sympathetic. The entire front row was packed in with gay men, and one of them piped up to the “only a girl” comment with: “And a gay male!”
There was much crowd participation at the show, from the dude in front of me air guitaring to every other song (hey man, that’s Wednesday night), to another guy giving Phair the “Number One!” pointer finger. I was surprised how many men were there, especially since one of my guy friends begged to come along (he said none of the guys he palled around with would dare to listen to Phair’s explicit encounters).
But that’s the thing about Phair -- and probably the main reason why there were so many guys in the audience – she doesn’t come off as preachy, or didactic, or a know it all. She comes off as honest, and she takes herself to task as much as she takes the dudes down for their actions. There’s a wanting in there pushing up against her frustrations, and it’s still pretty raw all these years later.
Her vulnerability is also raw in her performance, but it never became distracting. It was more endearing. Case in point: her encore. Once she ran through all of Exile, the crowd wouldn’t let her go. They were stomping and clapping and stomping a little more. But she claimed to not have a whole lot more to give. “This is so me, but I didn’t practice anything else,” she said, half-apologetically. “I’m technically shitty,” she continued, saying she’d just fuck around for a bit.
And fuck around she did, playing “Chopsticks” (off Whip-Smart) on the keyboards. She talked about her anxiety dreams about being locked in a building with a big crowd. She played a new song – which, like her other new songs for the past couple albums, just doesn’t match up (she sticks to too many abstract ideas and rock clichés—this time it was a chorus about “Ding Dong the Witch is Dead,” some guy going to hell, and cringer, “Hang yourself for rock ‘n’ roll.”) But even there the fans gave her applause, so she trotted out one more that she definitely hadn’t practiced, but was charming nonetheless. She answered a shout to play “Polyester Bride” (off Whitechocolatespaceegg). It was in the wrong key (she kept shifting key throughout the song, finally just skipping to the bridge). But it was, again, fun and charming and the crowd sang along and it made her seem less like some indie rock icon and more like the girl at the next barstool over – the same gal who made Exile such a great listen in the first place.
So this show was less a nostalgia play than it was Phair coming full circle. She may still lack some stage confidence and be kinda loose on her performances, but the sentiment in those songs rings loud, clear and confident, keeping Guyville populated with all her fans (gay, straight, and otherwise) for years to come.
By the way: Phair is wrapping up work on a new record, which is supposed to come out later this year.
And you can watch a video clip from Phair’s DVD (where she interviews Chicago pals and peers ranging from John Cusack to Steve Albini and that Nash Kato character) here.