It can be difficult to play a larger room when you’re standing alone on a stage. Even when you’re spilling your guts the way Julien Baker does every night like some sort of superhero.
Thursday night, Baker poured her heart out for an hour at the El Rey Theatre. I’ve seen Angel Olsen struggle to keep the crowd’s attention at this venue despite a good performance. Baker had no such troubles. Not only did the crowd stay respectful of Baker but they even bolstered the show by inadvertently providing harmonies for some of her most heart-wrenching tunes. Baker, along with opening acts Phoebe Bridgers and Julia Jacklin, were able to make the El Rey feel as tiny as the Hotel Cafe.
Hearing a crowd slowly build a singalong of Baker’s “Rejoice” is one of my top moments of any concert I’ve seen this year. “But I think there’s a god and he hears either way and I rejoice and complain,” Baker shouts in the song’s close. “And somebody’s listening at night with the ghosts of my friends when I pray,” she adds. You hear these words and then you remember (or Google later) that she was born in 1995. I remember seeing her in a church at SXSW and thinking, if this is what religion was like for me at all growing up I might have felt differently about it.
“You’re gonna run, when you find out who I am,” Baker build with on “Everybody Does.” The crowd came in on cue with her, singing “You’re gonna run it’s alright, everybody does,” over and over. When the song’s first notes were played, a fan’s over-enthusiasm forced a smile from Baker.
I heard people lose themselves completely in the song as though they were singing it back to the recording at home. People all around me were crying, and not quietly. What Baker does best in all of these songs is make it feel like an inviting place to let it all out along with her.
You’re gonna run when you find out who I am
I remember thinking early in “Good News” that it reminded me greatly of David Bazan — the storytelling in particular. In fact, I’m not the only one. “This is possibly the greatest David Bazan song I’ve ever heard written by another artist,” one user wrote on the Genius page.
The crowd came in on the second verse of “Good News,” growing loudly as more people joined in to sing. They took the part of the second vocals of Baker’s that appears on the record. “And I’m only ever screaming at myself in public, I know I shouldn’t act this way in public,” they joined in with Baker on. This, after in the first verse keeping it silent enough where you could hear the clicking of people’s phone cameras. Honestly, put this song up there with anything from Elliott Smith for me. Shit, even her cover of Smith’s “Ballad of Big Nothing” that opener Phoebe Bridgers joined her on at the El Rey.
The first song of Baker’s from her magnificent debut record Sprained Ankle was “Something.” It’s a really strong closer. On first listen, it’s got a really memorable build. Watching this big voice come out of someone that stands around 5 feet tall for an entire hour is really something. Her soft-spoken banter between songs catches you off guard due to the contrast to her voice.
Baker is very convincing as the most gracious performer I think I’ve ever seen. She sang one heartbreaking song after another, yet between songs she looked like she was on the verge of tears of total happiness. This 100 percent is the girl who I saw wear a shirt that said “Sad songs make me feel better.” On Thursday night, she sure made a lot of people feel.
Ryan Adams is probably pissed he didn’t write Phoebe Bridgers’ “Georgia”
Opening the night was Julia Jacklin, who was over from Australia. I got heavy Lisa Hannigan vibes from her vocally, just really beautiful. The melody from “LA Dream” sounded reminiscent of “It Wasn’t Me,” a Jenny Lewis track. Jacklin toes the line between Hannigan and the folksier side of Lewis. For being the opener of a three-act bill on a Thursday night LA crowd, she really held their attention impressively. One friend of mine came to the show specifically to see her.
Up next was Phoebe Bridgers, who has turned in a couple tracks recorded at Ryan Adams’ Pax-Am Studios. “Yeah, let’s open the pit up,” Bridgers quipped after delivering her opening slow acoustic tune. Like Jacklin, the crowd was very respectful of Bridgers’ time on stage and all seemed to be into it.
The highlight of the set was “Georgia” — probably the folksiest thing she pulled out of her bag. Ryan Adams is probably pissed off he didn’t write this song himself. It honestly sounds a lot like the rawer side of Adams, Heartbreaker era stuff. Listening to her belt out these massive beautiful bars left me with goosebumps.
I championed this show all week long on my social media. You don’t often see three songwriters of this caliber in one night for less than 20 bucks. It’s up there as one of my favorite shows all year. I’m stoked to see Baker again at FYF Fest. I’ve seen her in the daytime at a festival before and it’s a slightly different thing than being able to let it all go with her at the end of a night. But it’s still great and I highly recommend catching her Sunday afternoon at 2:45.
Writing and shitty Samsung photos: Mark Ortega