Julien Baker Lights Up Mr. Smalls
Julien Baker Live Show Review
Photos and Review by Julia Coakley
On a cold Wednesday night in Millvale, PA, fans of Julien Baker felt the warmth of good company and a little bit of hope. Julien Baker, the 22-year-old musician from Memphis, Tennessee, performed a show in support of her upcoming album, Turn Out the Lights. She was joined by openers Petal and Half Waif, who helped create a very open and honest atmosphere, as described by Half Waif herself.
Having never listened to either of the openers myself, I was pleasantly surprised by how perfectly they both set the tone for the main act. Petal is a solo act consisting only of a woman named Kiley Lotz from Scranton, PA, and it was immediately apparent why she was chosen to open for Julien Baker. Using only her vocals and a guitar or keyboard, the singer belted out the words to heartbreaking choruses. She spoke intimately with the crowd, saying that playing her songs tonight felt like “pulling scabs off.” By the time her set was finished, the crowd was aching for the next set. Half Waif definitely delivered.
Half Waif is the stage name for the songwriter Nandi Rose Plunkett, and she stood center stage behind her keyboard, delivering more upbeat, indie electronic melodies, while a small band backed her up. Nandi performed her emotional songs, but was able to prevent the night from becoming too sad by cracking jokes with the crowd. She also shared that Half Waif’s next record is currently in the process of being mixed, and should be out soon.
By the time Julien Baker took the stage, the theater was completely packed. One interesting thing about a concert of this sort is all the different kinds of people you see in the audience. It ranges from people like me, a college student and fan of indie music, to old men with full grown beards, to “dudebros” who, at a glance, would seem like they’ve never heard anything other than DJ Khalid. Without her even playing, it was obvious just how quickly Julien Baker could bring us all together.
Julien started off the show with “Appointments,” a single from her upcoming album. Though she was the only one onstage, she managed to play the guitar, play the keyboard, and sing all on this one track. She uses a looper pedal for her guitar that allows her to build up a wall of sound, filling up the room and providing the ambient feeling signature of her songs. She then played another single from Turn Out the Lights, “Funeral Pyre,” before launching into a block of songs from her debut album, Sprained Ankle. I was particularly excited to hear “Vessel,” because Julien Baker brought her friend Camille onstage, who is a violinist. The addition of the violin to this quietly powerful song created an indescribable sound that had many in the audience tearing up.
Though all of Julien Baker’s music is very emotionally heavy, she balances it out well by joking around with the crowd. She is acutely aware of how meaningful her songs are; she often writes about her own struggles with substance abuse, mental illness, and faith, all of which are serious issues that resonate with most, if not all, of the audience in some way. I don’t know how many people would be able to perform a song that opens with the lyrics “I wish I could write songs about anything other than death” (“Sprained Ankle”) and then continue on to tell a story of how she played to an audience of about 20 people several years ago at a small venue called Mr. Roboto in Pittsburgh.
Continuing through her set, Julien then played a handful of songs from Turn Out the Lights, including three songs that have not yet been released. According to Ms. Baker, her song “Happy to Be Here” is her favorite song off the new album, which you can hear for yourself on October 27. My favorite part of the set, however, was the final few songs. She closed out the show with the powerhouse songs “Rejoice,” “Something,” and “Good News,” and played “Go Home” as the encore. If you have never seen Julien Baker live, it’s hard to understand the emotional intimacy that comes with her shows.
There is something truly magical about hearing Julien’s voice, soaked with the wisdom of her past experiences, and hearing the crowd sing along in a hushed whisper as if singing too loudly will disturb the universe. To top it all off, she brought up Kiley Lotz of Petal and Nandi Rose Plunkett of Half Waif to sing along with her on “Good News” in three-part harmony.
On that cold Wednesday night in Millvale, all of us in the crowd experienced something incredibly sad yet incredibly hopeful. As cheesy as it sounds, Julien Baker taught us that night about standing together as humans, all of us from different backgrounds and at different points in our lives, and turning our bad experiences into something beautiful, which is exactly what she does with her music. Next time she comes to town, I highly recommend that you go see her concert.