Photos by Alexis Marshall / MTSU Sidelines
Imagine Lucy Dacus and Phoebe Bridgers bowing down on the stage of the Ryman Auditorium to Julien Baker as she shreds a larger-than-life guitar solo. It’s a sad-girl indie-rock fantasy, but in boygenius’ debut performance, it was reality.
Baker, Bridgers and Dacus took hold of Nashville’s mother church Sunday in the first stop of their tour, filling the pews with rich sound and painful honesty both individually and as a group.
The new supergroup’s first-ever live set, though not exactly surprising, enchanted and enthralled the audience — perhaps even more so the performers. Each of them spoke as though the show was a big milestone. Indeed it was a culmination of their work as artists and friends, complete with matching jackets emblazoned with moons and stars and the state of Idaho.
Truly the spirit of their inaugural show was less that of a concert and more what one would expect from a storytelling. They were bold, humble and earnest in their performance, each contributing her own distinct and discernible tone, not masking each other but intertwining their voices to create full harmonies that filled the space. They were so incredibly kindred and complementary, playing songs from their new self-titled EP.
One of the best parts of the show was getting to see each woman shine on her own first.
Headliner and former MTSU student Julien Baker touched the Ryman in her set Sunday, her songs transforming from contemplative, self-doubting ballads to fully fledged anthems, as evidenced in “Sour Breath” when she slowly builds from admitting “you’re everything I want, and I’m all you dread,” to relentlessly chanting “the harder I swim, the faster I sink.” It’s not exactly uplifting, but it’s powerful.
Her lyrics dive head-first into feelings of isolation and inadequacy, with Baker singing delicately at first before belting with all the extraordinary might she hides in her small frame. It’s impressive how much thunderous sound she generated by herself on stage for the majority of her set, switching between guitar and piano and using loop pedals to build walls of sound that crested and washed over the audience.
Baker’s vocals were beyond strong, regardless of the intensity of the song. When she sang softly, the audience hung onto every word, every syllable, every parting of her lips. And when she wailed in her upper register, she sang with so much feeling that I swear it could never sound the same twice.
She spoke throughout her set about how grateful she was to be there. When she performed her 2015 song “Everybody Does,” her lyrics grappled with the fear of not being enough, saying, “You’re gonna run when you find out who I am.” She thanked the audience for consistently proving her wrong.
Baker’s vulnerability is unmatched. By the end of her set, it was like her rib cage layed open on the floor of the stage. Baker truly cuts to the core of what it means to wrestle with yourself.
Bridgers was all dry humor and wry smiles during her Ryman set, bringing some ironic laughter to her music which is often melancholy or downright despondent.
Upon seeing her live, the small ghost on her album cover makes perfect sense. During songs like “Killer ” and “Steamroller,” her voice was spectral. She blanketed the room, the notes lingering in the air like smoke from the fog machines.
She struck a lighter tone when she introduced her biggest hit, “Motion Sickness,” saying, “This one’s kinda mean.” Following a trend seen across all the acts, Bridgers didn’t just sing this one. She told it to you. She made you believe her frustration as she played along with the stomping drum beat.
Bridgers was distinctly human during her performance. She re-started “Georgia” after beginning in the wrong key, saying she’d played over 100 shows so far this year, but this one had her nervous. The audience welcomed her honesty.
She also shared the story of how she got her Ryman-worthy belt buckle, which she reportedly won “mutton busting.” She said the sport was basically parents forcing children to ride sheep.
“It just means I ate shit like two seconds after all the other kids,” Bridgers said.
The indie folk-rocker led her portion of the show with the same laugh-it-off attitude you would expect from somebody who sells a t-shirt with her name plastered above an image of Danny DeVito in a platinum blonde wig.
As mentioned before, each artist brought her own strengths to this spectacular show, but Dacus was the stand-out storyteller. Her tone and inflection in every single song radiated an honesty that simply can’t be translated on-record.
She was filled with such enthusiasm for the show, saying she’d woken up that morning at 5 a.m. “like it was the first day of school.” She also added later, “Dad is here. He’s been to a lot of gigs, but he’s never been to the best gig of my life.”
And she certainly performed like it was the best of her life. The Richmond native seemed in her element at the Ryman. While she may not have commanded the room, she filled it to the brim and made it her home for the night.
Her deep, sweet voice was transfixing during stripped-down portions of her set like the opening of “Pillar of Truth,” a song she wrote about her aging grandmother.
In her closing song, “Nightshift,” Dacus absolutely wailed. Her voice has the capacity to transmit so much emotion. It sounded big and raw and open and painstakingly honest.
Every story she told on-stage, I want a copy.