The Cult of Liz Phair Is a Wonderful Place

The Exile in Guyville singer-songwriter delighted the Fillmore on Thursday night.

Phair is riding high on the release of “The Girly-Sound Tapes,” which collects self-produced work from 1991 that was, until recently, only available as a bootleg. (Zack Ruskin)

Early in Liz Phair’s headlining set at the Fillmore on Thursday evening, I found myself watching her feet.

As is often the case with concerts these days, a smattering of cell phones had risen in unison as Phair took the stage to perform cuts from across her illustrious — and still thriving — career. One man in particular was filming her first song (the excellent “Supernova” off 1994’s Whip-Smart) but his desire to memorialize the moment was apparently fleeting.

By the time I peered through the pixels of his screen, he wasn’t remotely focused on making sure he recorded Phair’s performance. His hand had gone slack, leaving his device to capture little more than the artist’s shoes and a snarl of cords on the stage. This is the power of Liz Phair.

Since she first released 1993’s Exile in Guyville to critical acclaim, Phair has remained a musical force the skirts the mainstream and attracts a diehard cult following. It isn’t that she hasn’t had success; three of her records were certified gold (500,000 sales) in the U.S. But the patience she’s shown in not rushing out new material has meant that each time her name returns to the new cycle, it’s a most-welcome surprise.

Currently, Phair is riding high on the release of The Girly-Sound Tapes, which collects her self-produced work from 1991 that was, until recently, only available as a bootleg. While her more recent work is well worth exploring, there can be no question that fans remain rabid for her early material. Thus The Girly-Sound Tapes represents a long-awaited gift to listeners and reflect a generosity intrinsic to Phair that was on full display at the Fillmore.

Before the main event got underway, supporting act Speedy Ortiz offered a delightful example of Phair’s influence on a new generation of artists. Lead singer-guitarist Sadie Dupuis acknowledged as much late In her band’s set, noting what it meant to be opening for a musician she had grown-up admiring.

“My dad used to go to the nearby record store chain and just buy whatever the clerk told him to get,” she recalled. “That translated to me getting a lot of records. I remember when he brought home one of Liz’s albums and I tore off the shrink wrap and heard it for the first time.”

Even more than her recollections, it was the music Speedy Ortiz played that spoke to their connection to Phair. The latter’s penchant for lyrics that split between the unabashed confessional and poetic observation were reflected in the former’s set, which sizzled with raw rock energy and confirmed that before too long, the days of Speedy Ortiz opening for anyone will likely be a thing of the past.

When Phair hit the stage, flanked by a roster of talented bandmates, the crowd’s giddiness was palpable. While her current “Amps on the Lawn” tour was not specifically advertised as a celebration of Exile in Guyville’s 25th anniversary, but tracks from that album would ultimately represent the majority of her setlist. In addition to singles “Never Said” and “Stratford-on-Guy,” Phair also busted out comparatively deeper cuts like “Help Me Mary” and fan-favorite “Fuck and Run.”

As an early ambassador of the no-frills, front-and-center indie rock approach, Phair’s performance was largely relegated to the music at hand. There were short bursts of banter, but for the most part Phair let her work speak for itself. Given the numerous interviews she’s granted in tandem with the The Girly-Sound Tapes release and Guyville anniversary, no one can fault her for potentially feeling as though she’s said all there is to say about songs she made seemingly a lifetime ago.

However, there was nothing stale in hearing them once more, from the humorous yet painful narrative at the heart of “Divorce Song” to the guitar theatrics that anchor “Mesmerizing.” Catharsis and nostalgia have always been closely linked, and Phair’s Fillmore performance was an immaculately engineered bridge that guided both emotions from the recesses of our minds out into the moment at hand.

Grateful, goofy, and still fully in control of her powers, Phair was like a spiked coffee on a cold winter’s night. It’s hard to know how long it will be before she opts to brew any fresh grounds, but Thursday night’s performance proved that her menu of hits is in no need of a makeover.  

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