October 16, 2017
The Grey Eagle in Asheville was as a particularly fitting choice of venue for the Julien Baker show on Saturday night. It’s small, intimate, and with a barely knee-high stage, it’s just about as up close and personal as you can get to such a colossally talented act. With support from Half Waif (members of Pinegrove) and a solo Petal set, the evening was already the makings of a perfect storm of emotion, and those in attendance were not disappointed. All through the night, smells from the taqueria at the back of the venue tangled with the scents of cigarettes wafting in from outside, spilled beer and liquor on the bar, and the distinct aroma of apprehension building throughout the crowd as the show carried on. The sounds of excited murmuring and expectations floated above the huddled groups of people, ranging from guesses at what the set list would be, to how much crying there would be during the headliner. No matter the conversation, all eyes and ears were primed for Julien Baker.
There is an intense buzz around Baker that has come to be expected after the 2015 release of her debut studio album, Sprained Ankle, a record that was met with critical acclaim and earned features in both The New Yorker and The New York Times. Since then, Baker has performed on Audiotree Live, Spotify Sessions, and NPR’s famed Tiny Desk Concert, gaining notoriety amongst an audience that yearns for her impassioned, heartbreaking lyrics and gracefully skilled musicianship. With her latest studio album Turn Out the Lights slated for release later this month, this tour is a first chance to hear her new music – an opportunity that many refused to miss, judging from the mass of people bustling by one another to get a closer look as the house lights began to dim, revealing five sparsely placed illuminated lamp bulbs on stage.
After walking into a tremendous applause, the small-framed Tennessee-native singer prepared her guitar and pedalboard before launching right into her set, only to stop almost immediately. She addressed the audience with an honest, frustrated sigh, chuckling at herself and lamenting on how crazy the day had been for her and the other members of the tour as she stated, “You know what? People make mistakes… So, I’m going to start that song over, is that okay?” Joyous shouting, laughter, and clapping exploded in approval, filling the venue with an instant relief as the tension that hung in the room was snapped in half. Baker continued with similar asides throughout the set, making everyone feel as if they were all individually sitting directly across from her as she discussed her day, the tour, her songs, and the struggles that inspired each song.
Baker’s live set specializes in a type of catharsis, an especially peculiar sensation that makes you feel as though every inch of your skin is on fire, while somehow simultaneously feeling entirely relieved of the weight foisted on your shoulders by life. Her songs are riddled with stories of addiction, heartbreak, and self-destruction, told with honest detail and earth-shattering intimacy. It’s through sharing those stories with an audience that Baker’s music is able to inspire that sense of catharsis and connection during her live shows. Delivered with a seeming ease, Baker shifted between her soft-spoken, beautiful melody, and a voice so powerful and commanding, it could easily rip a heart in two. Regardless of how effortless Baker may appear in her performance, she makes it more than evident to everyone watching, how much she cares about what she’s doing. The words that she’s singing never seem be lines on a page to her, but experiences that she retells and relives every night, played with the same fervor and dedication that she first wrote the songs with.
It’s that energy that makes it so easy for audiences to connect with Julien Baker. It’s her familiarity that creates such an open and understanding mood at every one of her shows. And it’s her bare-bones vulnerability that gives all of her listeners an opportunity to look into her life as she continues to heal and grow.