Photos by Esther Meyers
The opportunity to see Julien Baker perform her third album, Little Oblivions, was exceptional. To have the knowledge of Baker’s evolution and the challenge this album poised made her show profound. In her earlier work, Baker’s been known to perform alone with her guitar and a loop pedal. Little Oblivions is the first album utilizing a full band, transforming Baker from a singer-songwriter into a rockstar.
The interior of the Wiltern is warmly lit, accenting the gold highlights in the art deco design pieces covering the walls and ceiling. The smell of popcorn wafts through the air, giving patrons the feeling of being in a high-class movie theater as opposed to a concert venue. The demographics are split. Half the concert-goers are young adults with punky haircuts and clunky boots. The other half consists of millennial age men, all of which look like they belong in a gastropub advertising “soup of the day: whiskey”.
Openers Illuminati Hotties and Dehd rile the crowd through different punk influenced tones. It didn’t seem fitting at first, to have such high-energy openers for an artist once known for hushed emotional performances, but it made sense once Julien took the stage. The sharp synth chords of “Hardline” introduce the audience to Baker in the flesh. She’s wearing all black, which brings attention to the gold cross around her neck and the tattoos creeping up her arms.
Baker’s struggle with sobriety and straightedge culture are brutally depicted through the lyrics. The bassline builds anticipation and “Hardline,” and as it also does on the album, pulls us into Baker’s world. The last lines, “what if it’s all black, baby, all the time” cue the rest of the instruments to crash into gear, creating a fantastic rock soundscape for Baker to belt and stretch the repeated lyric of “all the time” over. Her facial expressions match the notes she works to hit, as if even the smallest muscles are working to produce the right pitch. Baker’s eyebrows rise and fall when hitting quick high notes.
Different colored lighting accompanies each song. A tasteful amount of fog gives different hues of green, orange, red and fuschia a translucent feel. Long, narrow bulbs that line the stage sync with the tempo of different instruments. All together the lighting adds visual cues that make the scene of Baker shredding on guitar and flipping her hair to the end of “Highlight Reel” cinematic and dream-like. After the song, Baker thanks the audience and describes how she feels when receiving graciousness from large crowds. Her voice is low, but with a child-like vocal fry.
Baker launches into “Heatwave” next, a song that highlights tragedy as an obstacle in maintaining faith. The lights are a peachy orange, and the drummer Mathew Gilliam mouths the lyrics that correspond to the visuals:
“Shell of an engine, unexplained, burst to fire engulfed in flames, breathing exhaust, a heat wave mirage, nothing to lose till everything’s really gone.”
After this song the band leaves Baker solo on stage to perform her older work in singer-songwriter style. It’s exciting to see the grip of the audience Baker maintains on keyboard or with her guitar and loop pedal. Through this contrast, Baker displays her musical evolution. While the full band is an exciting addition to her act, Baker shows the audience through this solo performance of her older work that her raw talent is always easy to see. Catharsis pulses from each phrase and bleeds into the audience singing along.
A synth chord played at the end of “Song in E” works as a transition to bring the band back on stage. Baker takes this time to introduce everyone behind her before looking off-stage and saying “oh and my friend Phoebe is here”. The crowd goes ballistic as Phoebe Bridgers walks on stage. It’s thrilling to see them harmonize to “Favor”, a song on Little Oblivions that features Bridgers’ vocals. This is Bridgers’ only cameo, and it’s nice to see Baker’s new album highlighted in this concert. However it is disappointing not to see them perform any of their Boy Genius songs, a group Baker, Bridgers, and Lucy Daucus formed in 2018.
“Ringside” was one of the more notable performances of the last portion of the concert. The song’s steady buildup climaxes with the line “So Jesus can you help me now?” emphasized through Baker and through heavy backup on drums. This performance that explores Baker’s relationship with OCD makes her style distinct from other performers. She delivers the same satisfying experience of any good rock show, but the lyrics and the overarching themes of her music make Baker great. She’s willing to explore the messy sides of herself as opposed to sticking to convenient, yet cliche themes of one dimensional romantic relationships.
To have the opportunity to see Baker and her album Little Oblivions performed live is not one to be missed. In her interview on The First Ever Podcast, Baker discusses her hopes for how this album would be translated live, and how much she values the ability to have a “musical conversation” with an audience. After waiting a year to present Little Oblivions live, Baker executes a dynamic performance worth interacting with.