Tag Archives: Julien Baker

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The Decemberists Drop In on New Venue Brooklyn Steel

April 18th, 2017

The Decemberists – Brooklyn Steel – April 17, 2017

image(The Decemberists play Brooklyn Steel again tonight and tomorrow.)

Not to show my age or anything, but (I looked it up), the first time I saw the Decemberists was at the relatively intimate Mercury Lounge nearly 14 years ago. Back then it was as equally inconceivable that a venue like Brooklyn Steel could exist where it now does as it was that the Decemberists might headline one of its first run of shows. The Decemberists were “Portland” before “Portland” was a thing—or “Williamsburg” was a thing for that matter—and still have the same magic today that they did back then. Kicking off the first of three shows in the brand-new room, they felt like an old friend stopping in for a visit. Before we get to their set, though, I have to spare a sentence or two for Julien Baker, who induced chills in the opening slot, reducing the large venue with just her guitar and voice, commanding the place as if holding a heart-to-heart in a living room. If you’re going to one of the next two nights, don’t miss her.

The Decemberists took the stage to a literal fanfare over the PA, frontman Colin Meloy announcing, “Welcome to Night One,” not even waiting until the first song to play with the crowd, joining in on drummer John Moen’s intro to playact lifting up the audience. By the time “The Infanta” began in full, the band and audience were already locked in for a long night of Decemberists-induced fun. With Meloy’s judicious use of the dramatic pause and the lights momentarily catching the disco ball, bathing the crowd in stars, Brooklyn Steel was immediately transformed. Without a new album to promote, the band was free to play from across their vast catalog, and it only took a couple of songs to realize that you could fill quite a few sets with “greatest hits,” things rolling with “We Both Go Down Together” (introduced as Donald Trump Jr. fan fiction) and a sing-along “Down by the Water.” With slight tweaks on their instruments, like guitarist Chris Funk moving to pedal steel or Jenny Conlee picking up her accordion, the band transformed their sound, gypsy swing to fantastical prog rock, all while Meloy sang his pitch-perfect songs, usually of woe, creating new worlds within the greater Decemberists universe.

Olivia Cheney came out to guest on a debut song from a reported fuller collaboration with her, which stretched that universe even more, the band becoming backing musicians as she sang and played harpsicord-esque runs on the keyboard. Another new tune, introduced as “about the state of the union,” centered on the joyful phrase “everything is awful,” but it was actually a rather exultant number, easily inducing the audience to sing along with the chorus. The show closed with more well-worn, well-loved Decemberists material—too many songs to list—including an extended mini-suite from the more-than-10-years-old-but-still-feels-new album The Crane Wife and a fun version of “Chimbley Sweep” complete with a guitar-accordion duel that played like a short skit. Meloy was, as always, equally adept with between-song banter. I mean, who throws out the phrase “conviviality of a campfire” in casual conversation? But the evening did have that intimate feeling, just another evening with old friends. —A. Stein | @Neddyo

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Julien Baker Silences a Sold-Out Music Hall of Williamsburg

September 26th, 2016

Julien Baker – Music Hall of Williamsburg – September 24, 2016

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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