boygenius (Lucy Dacus, Phoebe Bridgers, Julien Baker) At Brooklyn Steel, Wednesday, November 7th, 2018 Reviewed
The first time Graham Nash sang three part harmony with Stephen Stills and David Crosby was at Joni Mitchell’s house in the late-1960s, Graham had slept with Joni three months earlier and was visiting LA during a four day break from touring with the Hollies. Expecting to see Joni alone, he found himself with C&S, who played Stills’ “You Don’t Have To Cry” for him, Graham asked em to play it once more and again, and the third time harmonized with them. On the cover of boygenius debut EP, they channel CS&N, no, really:
So that would make Phoebe Bridgers Graham, which makes sense since Graham nailed Joni and Phoebe was “super down” with Ryan Adams, Julien Baker is Stephen Stills -the best guitarist and a de facto leader, and Lucy Dacus as David Crosby -your least favorite Byrd but cmon, a Byrd is a Byrd is a Byrd. Also, CS&N were folk-pop and BG are indie-folk, both are critic favorites, both are real good at singing together… and, and, and… that’s where I stall. Boygenius second performance was at Brooklyn Steel on Monday and CSN was at Woodstock so… Oh, and CS&N’s eponymous debut had holes, but it also had “Suite: Judy Blue Eyes”. Boygenius eponymous debut had “Me And My Dog -a sneaky song that gets under the skin with “…and possibly you” but it isn’t quite what you are being told it is. The thing is, I’m not really a CS&N fan and I have yet hear BG in the same league as, say, “49 Bye Byes”. Anyway, I thought Phoebe is Jackson Browne, Julien is Elton John and Lucy is David Bowie, sexually speaking at least: straight, gay, bi. All this makes boygenius indie folk for the people. All the people. Maybe not this person.
Last night was my first trip to Brooklyn Steel, run by Bowery Presents (and owned by AEG Live) and Terminal 5 lite. Terminal 5 is the lousy West Side nyc abattoir which I swore off after a terrific performance by Sleater Kinney was destroyed by the entire lack of sitelines. A friend of mine went to see Big Red Machine there yesterday and was furious at having to watch it on a screen. So, BS to BS, I thought, but my hand was forced. You see, I am not much of a fan of any of the three women, but they are so incredibly hip and I run a music blog and you don’t know until you catch em live, so I caught em live all at once. The cost of the ticket was a third the cost of transportation. But BS isn’t, in fact, BS, despite the complete lack of seating, the sitelines are excellent, and BG aren’t BS either. Lucy Dacus was a complete revelation, and while both Phoebe and Julien are too quiet for my tastes (cmon guys, it is HAPPY SONGS ABOUT SAD THINGS), they absolutely spoke to their audience who played them the ultimate compliment: they listened intently.
I took my sixteen year old niece, who identifies queer, to see Troye Sivan last month and she was overjoyed by the campy, gay and lesbian, and other gender identifiers these are my peeps audience. She had just been through a sad break up after the girl she was dating’s Mom discovered a love letter and went ballistic, it served as a remainder that what we assume isn’t necessarily what is happening: homophobia lives. Oddly, the audience for boygenius was mostly 20 something post-college kids, mostly a mirror image of the performers themselves. The show was being live streamed on Pitchfork and ran like clockwork. Lucy came on with her band and performed a half hour of power folk, this was Lucy’s twelth time performing in nyc and I really don’t know how I missed her the other eleven times. Songs about bad boyfriends and death abounded and with the Julien requested song added to the setlist, she knocked me over with a groove monster jam to a really good song “Timefighter,” I bet she keeps it in the mix. Lucy’s sophomore album Historians is much better than I gave it credit for, it just takes a little time and who has a little time? “Addictions,” “Night Shift” the title track… how do you miss songs that good?
I didn’t miss Phoebe Bridgers Strangers In The Alps, and “Motion Sickness” doesn’t just wink across the barriers at Conor Oberst while shaking my heading Ryan Adams, it also works as an answer song to Ryan’s own “English Girls Approximately” and manages a devastation so complete and not just “I faked it every time” but equally “why do you sing with an English accent?”. “Motion Sickness” is Phoebe’s best song but not by much, early songs like “Steamroller” and later songs like “Smoke Signals” and “Demi Moore” (“I’m great at sexting” she claimed) are just plain wonderful. But “Motion Sickness” is the only song where she gave her material what it deserved in an energizing, powerful roar of a performance. Otherwise, the songs are sad, subdued, and lost in ambience, in a word or four: not bad but boring.
Julien is the Bob Dylan of boygenius, though she is given too much to the prosaic. People seem to think Julien is a finished superstar now that she’s improved her song arrangements on her second album. The Memphis Tennessee reminds me a little of Joan Jett, not musically at all, but her warmth toughness, if you have ever met Joanie you’d be surprised at how tiny she is, you want to protect while being well aware she might clock you one. I feel that mix of tender and tough is part of Julien. She performed an hour of lovely songs that took you by surprise, that she sang till her lung seemed to fill the room, the place was completely quiet, completely at her command and she commanded quietly but completely. Yet, I am just not crazy about her songs, she was built to compose very strong tunes, if the tunes didn’t seem to burble below the piano and violin, didn’t drift along but grabbed you, the songs would connect much better: it is partially integrity, a refusal to compromise a real vision but the rest of it might be that she lacks the skills. Of the three, Phoebe is a rock star and Lucy is an Alanis Morissette, but Julien is more: she has the potential to be considered a true superstar, the way we consider Joni a top performer. But she isn’t there yet.
boygenius together for six songs at the end? Well, I was dead on my legs by then so if I seem a little cool, well, to quote Jarvis Cocker, help the aged. Still, I had been listening to the EP since it came out and I couldn’t even get into “Me And My Dog” -aesthetically, I got the message, but emotionally it left me cold. The live performance absolutely zoom lensed it, I got it. And I enjoyed it. I would go and see any of the three musicians again, I do believe they aren’t where they are going, but they are definitely on the way. As for which one is Neil Young? They all are.