At one point in the Julien Baker show at the Gothic Theatre, the singer and songwriter acknowledged, in her offhand, dryly humorous way, that mostly the set would consist of full band songs since she had released a full band album (Little Oblivions) earlier in the year and that it may not be for everyone but that if it was, thanks for supporting the music. Her wry and self-aware wit graced much of the show when the occasion presented itself as a kind of contrast to the intense and raw emotional territory of the music itself.
Chicago art punk band Dehd opened the show with their own brand of irreverent intensity. Drummer Eric McGrady seemed to hold the music together while Emily Kempf and Jason Balla traded off and came together with emotionally charged vocals, Kempf’s expressions both refined and eruptive, Balla’s fiery yet thoughtful. After being on the fence listening to the band’s recorded output over the last few years taking a closer listen to the band’s 2020 album Flower of Devotion and seeing the band in action made it obvious that preconceptions of where its music fits in a box are best left aside in appreciation for how its various creative impulses work together well when in the context of a live music setting.
Julien Baker has always had an uncommonly powerful voice with a widely expressive delivery as a live performer. Impossible to ignore or dismiss because her turns of phrase are often so creative and coursing with genuine feeling. Seeing these qualities in the context of the full band and an expanded sonic palette. Sure, the middle section of the show where Baker performed solo with guitar and then piano were intimate and poignant and a showcase for her immense talent as a songwriter and performer. But it felt like in some ways that not having to make all the sounds of the music happen left her free to express her feelings in an even more potent and direct way. Certainly the band rehearsed before the tour but when Baker got swept up in the moment and cried out in peak moments of soaring vocals it felt like she was really putting herself out there in a radically vulnerable, elemental way, putting her trust in the audience emotionally. And to its credit the audience responded in kind. It seemed like everyone had more than a singular moment throughout the show and Baker seemed to give voice to thoughts and feelings maybe other people don’t know how to articulate as well or as artfully with as much cathartic energy in public.
There wasn’t a lot of banter during a set of around twenty songs but when Baker did speak it was with a charmingly self-deprecating humor and a spirit of kindness that was unmistakable. Yes, Baker’s song speak to pain and suffering in a poetic yet real way, especially the songs from Little Oblivions. But always with a sense of a shared experience. When her words address or speak about someone it isn’t with a sense of spite or accusation so much as honoring the raw emotions and with an aim of understanding and processing experiences that can be incredibly uncomfortable. Her performance, as with the new album, came across as opening these moments that can get stuck in our heads with an inspiring honesty minus the cruelty that too often accompanies when people are “being real” with one another. Rather Baker showcased a way to be real and honest with compassion and kindness while also feeling in full the power and sometimes psychologically transformative experiences of those feelings.
Perhaps most telling was a moment mid-set when someone in the audience commented on one of her early songs and Baker said she wrote it when she was 18 years old in her dorm and that she hopes she has grown and developed as a person since then but that yet she feels compassion for the person she was then. There are many lessons to be learned about life over the years but that’s one that Baker learned earlier than most people and a bit of down to earth wisdom she shared without couching it as such and that spoke volumes about her approach to her music and with other people, a subtle yet strong kindness that isn’t common enough.