[Archive] Julien Baker/Worriers: Live Review @ Deaf Institute, Manchester, 06/06/2017
Note - this piece was originally published at Forgotten Chords on 09/06/2017. You can view the original post here.
The Deaf Institute is one of my favourite venues that I've attended in Manchester, if not the whole country. It was where I saw my first ever gig in Manchester (AJJ, back in October 2014, just a couple of weeks after I'd moved up here), and where I've seen an impressive range of acts since, from local talent Arms & Hearts and Liam McClair, to bands as disparate as Spector and Kevin Devine. Regardless of the genre, I've found the venue's impressive music hall a perfect fit, with its astonishing mirrorball and beautiful patterned mural behind the stage. However, while I've enjoyed riotous rock shows here in the past (trust me, that AJJ show was nothing short of unforgettable), I've always thought the place would lend itself best to quieter, more emotional kind of acts.
Which is why that as soon as I saw that Julien Baker was going to be playing here, I was excited, and felt the venue a perfect fit for her ethereal ambience, as demonstrated on her excellent debut Sprained Ankle and recent single Funeral Pyre. Tickets sold out astonishingly quickly, but I managed to pick up a last minute ticket from a friend, and got down early to get myself a good spot.
The opening act was Lauren Denitzio, lead singer and guitarist of Philadelphia punks Worriers, a band who I'd heard of from their excellent single They / Them / Theirs from a few years ago. While I'd not listened to their most recent album Imaginary Life before the show, I've visited it since and have been really impressed, with its bristling punk energy and unflinching lyrics, reminiscent of Against Me! circa Transgender Dysphoria Blues. Of course, the show was going to be different to this, since it was just a solo electric performance, however the tension and anxiety of the album songs was certainly demonstrated well live. While cuts like album highlight Glutton For Distance lacked some of the sheer momentum of their studio versions, they retained their tension live, with Lauren blitzing through a range of tracks in her short but densely packed 30-minute set. The crowd certainly seemed impressed, as I didn't hear any chatter over the performance, instead seeing everyone pay attention to her honest lyrics about relationships and personal identity. The highlights for me were the aforementioned They / Them / Theirs, and Plans, a short punky belter with an incredibly catchy refrain of "I've got plans for me," that refused to leave my head long after the night had ended. I've been listening to their album on repeat since the show, and I already can't wait to see them live again, perhaps next time with the full band.
While the crowd were certainly attentive during Lauren's set, they may well have been hypnotized from the moment that Julien Baker took the stage. She started the set with Sprained Ankle, it's cyclic riff ringing out through the room, stunning everyone into reverent silence. The first time I heard this song, I was grabbed by the opening line of "I wish I could write songs about anything other than death." It proves a striking start to the night. I've never seen a performer use a loop pedal as effectively as Julien did in Sprained Ankle - while I'm not a fan of it being used excessively, it worked incredibly well here, letting the main three note riff of the song melt into our minds, as Julien added more and more lead guitar parts over the top until the song's heavenly coda. Singing about death never sounded so gorgeous.
She followed it up with one of my personal favourite songs from her album, Everybody Does. These two songs showcased the versatility of both Julien's songwriting and her voice, with the song's palm muted guitar strums over shouted vocals demonstrating her incredible range, paired with her incredibly detailed and self-lacerating lyrics. "You're gonna run when you find out who I am," she sings, repeating the lines over and over building up to the magnificent coda, admitting that "it's alright, everybody does." On the studio version of this song, she's joined with brilliantly harmonized vocals. The audience were more than happy to recreate them, with everyone around me gently singing back in unison.
The set leaned heavily on her only album so far, Sprained Ankle, however we were treated to some new songs, ahead of her upcoming sophomore record. Recent single Funeral Pyre came across even more hauntingly beautiful live, with her stunning descriptions of a withering relationship between two self-destructive people set over echoing guitars. Unreleased track Happy To Be Here was one of many songs featuring religious imagery tonight, with it's climatic chorus drawing applause every time it repeated, with everyone in the hall awed by her powerful voice. The final new song, Turn Out The Lights is sure to be a live staple in the future, and raised excitement for her second album to unfathomably high levels. The final refrain had a crowd of people who had never heard the song before shouting it back at her, garnering one of the best responses of the night. Hearing this song fully recorded is going to be something truly special.
However, the highlight of the set for me was album centrepiece Rejoice. She'd described the song as about "being grateful for horrible, horrible things," with the lyrics touching on her Christianity, substance abuse, mental health and dead friends. It's at once soul-baring, confessional, stirring and deeply relatable. "Give me something good, and I'll throw it away," she sings in a near whisper, "I wish I could quit but I can't stand the shakes." Her voice builds from a low contralto up to a piercing shout in the final verse:
But I think there's a God and he hears either way when I rejoice and complain
Lift my voice that I was made
And somebody's listening at night with the ghosts of my friends when I pray
Asking "Why did you let them leave and then make me stay?"
Know my name and all of my hideous mistakes,
but I rejoice. I rejoice. I rejoice. I rejoice.
It's rare to attend a show where everyone in the crowd is hanging on every word the artist says, giving them total undivided attention, however this was no ordinary show. Julien Baker is an incredible songwriter with a gift for spellbinding her audience making songs that sound beautiful on record feel even greater live. If there's any justice, then she's bound for bigger venues and much bigger success, and I can't recommend her enough.
She closed the main set with one of her most popular songs, Something, prompting a singalong at the front, before returning for the encore. While I was disappointed she didn't play the stunning Go Home that closes her album, her cover of Doesn't Remind Me by Audioslave proved to be a perfect closer. A stunning tribute to the late Chris Cornell, she transformed the song from a driving grunge rocker into a beautiful ballad, wringing out Cornell's words for every drop of emotion possible. She left the stage to rapturous applause, not ending until a while after the house lights came up. I didn't want to go home. Bring on album number two and another tour.
Julien Baker played:
Happy To Be Here
Turn Out The Lights
Doesn't Remind Me (Audioslave cover)
Get her music on Bandcamp here.