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Sunday, October 01, 2023

Elevated Confessions, Julien Baker at the Majestic

Although there was no moshing and masks stayed on at the Julien Baker concert, it was anything but quiet. People in line cautiously befriended each other, bonding over which songs they suspected they would cry to and how strange it felt to be back in line for a concert again.

“It’s a very polite crowd tonight,” said Justin Martin, a bartender at the Majestic Theater. “I work at some of the other venues around here, and some things can get out of hand. People don’t like to be policed about the masks. It’ll be nice to have a quieter night.” 

This was the overwhelming consensus among attendees: any song could open the floodgates, and although the live music scene felt unfamiliar, it was good to be back. 

Opener Thao, a San Francisco-based veteran rocker influenced by Lucinda Williams and punk music, energized the audience with her electrified mandolin and catchy, yet haunting guitar hooks. She seemed to hover above the floor in her leather booties, that is, until the blue lights behind her flashed and she finished a song with angsty stomps. Those spooky riffs in combination with howly vocals and Elvira-esque bangs gave Thao’s set the vibe of a vintage Halloween soundtrack that had gone indie-rock. 

As Thao switched from her black electric guitar to the amped-up mandolin, she revealed that her bassist and drummer had recently told her what it means when a Gen Z audience calls her “mommy.” The crowd laughed and echoed off their favorite Freudian-inspired TikTok sounds. Then, Thao mentioned that her fifth album would be available at the merch table. 

“Hand-stamped by mommy, I guess?” she laughed with a guitar pick between her teeth.

The crowd erupted into cheers and laughter as Thao launched into her next song. 

She ended her set with “Fool Forever,” calling on Julien Baker, her band and the audience to participate in a cacophonous call and response. Thao’s music feels like snapping back at an authority figure — there’s wit, intensity and just enough danger to keep egging on the adrenaline.

That adrenaline carried the audience to feel every ounce of the hurt and longing that characterizes Baker’s music. This tour and her third album, “Little Oblivions,” released in the winter of 2021, are the first that feature Baker backed by a band. Her previous shows and albums were largely solo acts, with Baker alone, armed with only her guitar and a piano, according to UW-Madison student Rae Leung. 

“Her style is so raw and confessional, and I’m curious to see if having a full band will change that at all,” Leung said. 

Baker grew up in a devout Christian family in suburban Tennessee and was first introduced to music through church. She has since distanced herself from her religious roots, wanting to explore spirituality without labels. Her upbringing in the church is reflected in her music both lyrically and stylistically. 

She opened the show with “Hardliner,” the first track off of “Little Oblivions.Two white spotlights illuminated Baker, dressed in skinny jeans and a dark grey button-down with a name tag reading ‘Carl.’ Her tattoo sleeved shifted and flexed as she played her tan guitar. The opening keyboard notes sounded like an electrified church organ, chords weighing heavy on the ears, like sins on the soul.

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The lights and slight fog on the stage were reminiscent of a youth group concert at a contemporary Christian megachurch, and the passion behind the lyrics could easily be mistaken for religious devotion. The close listener will realize that references to saviors and crucifixion are metaphors for Baker’s experiences with trauma, addiction, mental illness and abandonment. 

The full band lifted Baker’s melancholy lyrics of an inevitable falling out across the packed venue. As the song progressed, the guitars rang out and yellow lights ascended behind the band. During guitar solos, Baker swung her floral guitar strap around and rocked with her back to the audience. She was just as lost in the music as the audience was. 

Between songs, Baker wasted no time with chitchat. As she tuned her guitar, she expressed her gratitude to be out touring again and thanked the audience for wearing their masks and getting vaccinated. The band slipped backstage and some fans hooted to break the silence. 

“I love your music!” someone yelled from the mezzanine. 

“It’s not for everyone; glad it’s for some,” Baker responded. 

She then played “Sprained Ankle,” her very first single that launched her into the music business. The softness of this song matched the light breathiness in Baker’s voice and contrasted from the expressive electric guitars and heavier drums of her newest album. The lyrics took center stage, and the crowd knew every word. 

After the final group refrain of “marathon runner, my ankles are sprained,” a hush fell over the crowd before they broke into what can only be described as depressed applause. 

Fans found a relatable release in her lyrics. Though they stem from Baker’s own life and experiences, she wrote about them in a more vague and thematic way that allowed any listener to put themself behind the guitar. 

“It sucks that Julien and other people have felt like this too,” said Leung. “But if I were an artist, it would make me feel good to know that people can find meaning and catharsis in my music. I would hope it might make them feel less alone in what they’re going through.” 

Backed by her band, Baker closed the show with “Appointments,” a song off of her sophomore album. She sang about how hard it is to believe that you’re wanted, and how it’s even harder to give up the hope that you might be someday. The crowd screamed along to every word. 

This tour illustrates both Baker’s growth and consistency as an artist by featuring songs off all three of her albums. Each album adds a little more instrumentation and sonic complexity, but she used that skillfully to elevate her intimately relatable lyrics rather than mask them. The style evolves, but the heart-wrenching confessions endure. 

Final Grade: A

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