Julien Baker – Music Hall of Williamsburg – September 24, 2016
There was an excited squeal from the crowd when the lights finally went down and Julien Baker took her place, alone at the front of the stage at Music Hall of Williamsburg on Saturday night. It was a collective, naked, anticipatory “Oh, my God!” that potentially foreshadowed a night filled with passionate song requests or those “I love you!” proclamations that an overjoyed sold-out audience might not be able to restrain. Instead the next hour was filled with silence—an amazing and deserved silence, a combination of awe, reverence, respect, barely a sigh or a throat-clear. It’s kind of hard to stand so still in a crowded room and not make a noise for an hour and yet it felt absolutely required: Baker and her music, songs of palpable, soulful depth, demanded nothing less.
Operating with just a guitar and a microphone, she worked her way through most of her breakthrough album, last year’s Sprained Ankle. You really wanted to hear every word Baker sang, each song had a lyric or an image that seemed to punch through and linger in the air. When she sang, “Feed me to the wolves tonight,” in “Blacktop,” the show opener, the tone of fear and uncertainty was in sharp contrast to the warm love she was getting from the audience. Maybe more revealing was when Baker wondered, “I hear there’s a fix for everything/ Well why then not me?” in the newer “Sad Song #12.”
Baker’s use of dynamics while singing felt like a unique channel of her inner state: She sang quietly most of the time, close in to the microphone, while occasionally raising her voice in anger or catharsis—like in “I know myself better than anybody else”—but tilted her head away from the microphone, so that the volume remained steady even while the emotional wallop hit the air. A cover of Death Cab for Cutie’s “Photobooth” felt like a perfect fit in the set. Baker’s guitar playing revealed subtle secrets as well, reverb, echo and the occasional loop found comfort in the quiet stillness of the room. Between songs the silence broke for a moment, the crowd releasing in enthusiastic, heartfelt applause and maybe a bit of that pent-up feeling the music inspired. —A. Stein | @Neddyo