The car in front of me on the way to see Liz Phair in concert had a Jawbreaker bumpersticker. And that got me thinking about a 2017 Emily Flake New Yorker comic on the power of music-fueled nostalgia. So it was only fitting that I would end up on a nostalgia-induced crying jag when the first notes of "Canary" hit Revolution Hall's auditorium.
Phair was in town to mark the 30th anniversary of her influential debut album, Exile in Guyville, playing through it track-by-track to a sold-out crowd. While I was expecting a lot of 40- and 50-something women, there were also a surprising number of dudes in the crowd—presumably waiting to be exiled in Guyville. Perhaps I wasn’t paying attention back then, but I don’t remember that many male Phair fans back in the day, but they were out in force at the show.
After a dazzling opening set by Phair’s musical heir apparent, Blondshell—which the guys behind me declared was “so ‘90s,”—Phair herself took the stage. Dressed in a T-shirt and back slit maxi skirt, Phair picked up her guitar and launched into the spicy opening notes of “6’1,” instantly going larger than life, or at least living up to her lyrics of seeming “6' 1, instead of 5’ 2.”
The audience was content to sit back and seat-dance for the first few tracks. Truthfully, the seating arrangement at Revolution Hall may not have been the best choice for the show. Sure, there were assigned seats for us olds and our aching knees, but it meant the audience was divided between those who wanted to dance (or drunkenly flail, as was the case for at least one person), and those who wanted to sit and just watch the show.
Instead, the evening felt like a tug-of-war between folks there to shimmy-shimmy shake away the years and those twitching with irritation at people dancing in their eyeline and teetering towards calling a manager. (A manager was actually called to deal with the drunken flailer.)
Once Phair got to the defensively rabble-rousing “Never Said,” the crowd was finally ready to sing along. “Hello the audience!” Phair said from the stage, laughing.
Phair worked through her debut album, and the audience responded—becoming more and more rapt as they collectively traveled back in time. It was hard not to get lost in memories of blasting “Fuck and Run” from CD players in our bedrooms in the wake of a ghosting, before we even had a word for ghosting. It was also hard not to feel a little sad for those lost days, listening to the soundtrack of our teens and 20s, here in the bodies of 40 and 50 year olds. A group of three women embodied the happy-sad of it all, hugging each other and swaying as they mouthed along to “Girls! Girls! Girls!” They weren’t the only ones lost in nostalgia.
“It’s kind of an incredible thing to go back to this album,” Phair said from the stage. “I had to remind my mind and go way back there.” She explained that her time dwelling on the past helped her reevaluate her younger days and the inspiration for Exile in Guyville. “You realize, back then—in that crazy time, the liminal space between youth and adulthood—those are some of the best times of your life,” she said.
While the handful of Gen Z girls in the crowd probably weren’t waxing nostalgic about their youth, they were more than happy to scream along to “Fuck and Run,” a song that is eternally pitch-perfect for twentysomethings. (And to the angry dude giving them dirty looks for their revelry, who exactly do you think this album is for??)
“I love that you guys are singing!” Phair told the crowd, but it was a little jarring to hear nice middle aged moms you would normally see mulling the samples at New Seasons singing “I want to fuck you like a dog/ Take you home and make you like it” from the album’s raunchiest track, “Flower.” After the song, Phair was laughing again, saying she wouldn’t play that song during the Trump era because there had been “enough big dick energy” in the air. For the more contemplative track “Gunshy,” Phair ditched the guitar, singing directly to the audience, reaching out to her fans under a spotlight. As the audience sang the words back, it somehow it made her more relatable than ever.
Do I sound like an old man yelling at clouds yet? How about this: It was almost heartwarming to hear people singing along word-for-word with the album’s second-to-last track, “Stratford on Guy,” taking us back to a time when deep cuts were just cuts and albums were gobbled up whole—not sliced into singles for easier consumption.
As Phair and her backing band ran through the album, the songs unfurled a little softer, a touch twangier, and generally rounder around the edges. The band’s version of “Strange Loop” would have been right at home on a Maren Morris album (that’s a compliment!).
Overall, Exile in Guyville on tour—30 years later—lacked the angularity and anger of the original. That’s understandable, though; it’s hard to stay angry 30-plus years on from the events that spawned a rager. It’s undoubtedly hard, if not downright unhealthy to harbor a grudge long enough to tap into it all these years later. The young girls behind me, though? They were more than willing to scream along to “Mesmerizing” and “Divorce Song,” providing all the angst and anger that fueled them in the first place.
Still, the audience for the most part was a little softer around the edges, too. The people cutting out at what they thought was the last song seemed genuinely surprised there was an encore, let alone three. Those who stuck around were treated to “Supernova,” “Polyester Bride,” and somewhat surprisingly “Why Can’t I,” which left a little Michelle Branch-ishness ringing in our ears, and on the way back to our bikes and cars—some of which had Liz Phair bumper stickers attached.