Julien Baker returned to New York City for the first time since the end of 2018 to play her largest headlining show here to date. The show was at Beacon Theater, a gorgeous old fashioned venue on the Upper West Side that opened as a movie palace in 1929. She may be just about the only person who can get me to venture that far uptown or to see a show in a seated venue (something I still can’t get used to), but since I’ve managed to miss every other NYC gig she’s played due to my own past touring commitments, and then you-know-what came to town to disrupt everything, I knew there was no way I was going to miss her next show here. This may have been my first time seeing her play but it was well worth the wait.
Mini Trees opened the show and I admit I had not previously been familiar with them at all. After unfortunate subway issues had me running late, I got in without missing all that much and got to my seat at the start of the second song to settle in. This is the project of songwriter Lexi Vega, who bills herself as “living room pop.” I got a lot of (slightly less airy/ethereal) Grouper vibes, so this is a very apt description. She has new music due out this week, Always In Motion, via Run For Cover which is her debut full length after previous EPs and singles.
I have long been a fan of the “bedroom pop” genre which I first became aware of as a very DIY thing happening in the late 80s and early 90s (think Matthew Hattie Hein, very early Mountain Goats, and a lot of choice K Records 1980s output). Those earlier offerings were often executed with crappy four tracks or Radio Shack tape recorders and released on now very hard to find limited tapes and 7inches, so I have enjoyed seeing this new crop of artists doing things in the same vein with the ability to more widely release their music. While I do so much love that extremely unrefined approach of the earlier era, it is nice to hear newer artists carrying the torch, but with far superior equipment. The recordings are not only much cleaner, but with the ability to add synths and other elements as prices on that gear and computers have dropped drastically over the years too, a lot of very interesting new material is now out in the world that has much more depth and many more layers, but the same overall spirit. I really heard a lot of both the older life in Mini Trees as well as distinct signs of the newer era.
Mini Trees at Beacon Theater.
Thao played next and I had largely (and foolishly as it turns out) been unfamiliar with her work outside of her 2011 collaboration with Mirah. From the moment her set started til the very last note, I was captivated with every single song. I realize I look at the world through a very specific lens (aka DIY punk/hardcore of the 80s/90s variety) and that that informs a lot of my thought processes and the way I perceive many things—music obviously and especially—so I may be “punk projecting” here, but I very much heard and felt a lot of elements of 90s era Dischord bands. Thao’s set was layered with complexity, intricacy, and a vibrant intensity, though with a decidedly more measured delivery than some of those earlier bands; even so the spirit still felt there for me. At times it almost invoked shades of Fugazi’s brilliant and nuanced final album, The Argument. As I’ve perused some articles since the show and talked to a few friends, it does seem I may be one of the few people who has that take, but I’m fine with that.
Her backing band was also extremely on point, locked in together for a strong groove. I was impressed in particular by her drummer Francesca (thanks to my bad hearing from being a drummer myself, I did not catch a surname), who it turns out is also a member of the Long Island band Macseal. Chops for days and some really tight grooves, I absolutely was transfixed, particularly with the “drumming with one hand/two feet, synth with the other” parts of the set. Later into the set Thao announced a limited edition tour 7inch before the band launched into the A side, “Ambition,” and as they rocked through the closing quarter note triplets of the song, I almost jumped out of my seat then and there to go buy it (I did immediately after their set). I hope I can catch a headlining show next time Thao comes to NYC because this was one of the best sets I’ve seen since the return of going to shows regularly.
Thao limited edition tour 7inch.
Julien Baker took the stage at 9:30, with her full backing band accompanying her, and they promptly launched into the opener of Little Oblivions, “Hardline.” The shocking organ blast that announces the start of the album pulsing out from the stage as the lights went up made for a dramatic and welcome entry into the set. What followed was a narrative in three arcs —the band playing several songs together, a small group of older songs performed solo, with the band then returning to finish the set. Most of the songs were from the new record but there was still a healthy sprinkling of songs from her previous two albums, as well as the 2019 Sub Pop single, “Tokyo” (see below for full set list).
In the truly delightful and affable manner that Baker has in interviews and at shows, she thanked the crowd for coming multiple times, saying that it was a little scary and the stakes “felt higher” to play such a large venue and repeating that it was an honor to be there. She also thanked everyone for being vaccinated and wearing masks so that touring life and live music can continue even as the pandemic still has not abated. Later she quipped, after thanking the crowd yet again and saying she liked when people sang along, that she was not “lying for your validation, I’m practicing my standup comedy,” which of course was met with plenty of chuckles. At one point someone also yelled out “can we stand up?” to which she responded “You’re asking me? Of course you can if you want,” before reminding the crowd to be respectful of shorter people “because I’m short,” and people who were not able to stand.
Julien Baker at Beacon Theater.
While I had not seen Baker perform live before, I’d definitely seen videos, and being there in person is something that can’t be matched. Seeing her was all I had hoped it would be and the addition of the live band really added a significant depth. This was apparent particularly in the few older songs that had previously been solo but she reworked to include the band; “Shadowboxing,” and “Appointments,” being standouts. Hearing the few solo songs too was a treat, “Sprained Ankle,” especially, but I do wish I had not missed the boat in seeing these performed earlier in a smaller setting.
The interplay with her band on stage show they are obviously a tight knit group, she didn’t just hire some touring musicians to come along for the ride, this is a group of friends doing something they love together. You could particularly see this in her interactions with drummer Matthew Gilliam, who keen observers would remember played with Baker in her very first band that she started as a teenager, The Star Killers, who later changed their name to Forrister. She has now brought him into her touring band and with every crescendo and particularly intense moment, she turned towards the drum riser to lock in with him; their bond tangible and undeniable.
Julien Baker’s setlist. I took old school notes.
Baker had a wide assortment of merch, and being that I already have two of her shirts (and about 100 more of other bands), I definitely did not need any more tees, but I still wanted to get something to support her. My eye was caught by a small book so I asked to see it. It turned out it was a zine she had made featuring writing and comics. I had previously read and enjoyed her essays for Oxford American so this was the right purchase for me. I also love that—if you know what you’re looking at—there are little clues to her DIY roots dotted all over her work and so this particularly piqued my punk nerd interest in that way too. (Again, perhaps this is me “punk projecting” in everything I see, but its informed decades of my life at this point so it’s a hard habit to break.)
Loss Protocol Volume One by Julien Baker.
After the show I sat in the park with a friend for a bit and then took a late night walk around Manhattan, something I’ve always loved doing but don’t always have the time for. This led to me having to wait longer for a train back to Queens so I sat in the station and started to flip through the zine while I waited. I was not expecting what I started to read, staggering with a distinct directness. I won’t divulge the contents here, because it is deeply personal and I don’t feel it’s my place to do so like this is a book report. But I do recommend you get a copy yourself because it was astonishing in its candid frankness, detailing things I did not expect to read or even be privy to as someone who does not know her personally and a very raw insight into her experiences and emotions during 2019 and 2020. Much like her lyrics, the material doesn’t hold back, but delves even deeper and in a much more specific way. This is not to say that is a bad thing at all, quite the contrary in fact. It was a look into her life not through a media outlet asking her the same questions a dozen others have already asked, but her tale in her words because she wanted to tell it. Much like her songs themselves, it was a startling revelation. I almost missed the train when it rolled up I was so entrenched; I later almost missed the transfer from the 2 to the 7 for the same reason.
Queer joy is something Baker has always been vocal about, and it truly is a palpable thing that we can find everywhere, in everything if we want to. Indie rock shows, personal zines, late night walks through Manhattan in the comfortable warmth of a waning summer. Just look, it’s there.
Update 9/21/21: Baker posted to her Instagram about the zine and some information on its background, as well as the fact that 100% of the proceeds from sales will be going to OUTMemphis which I had not been aware of at the show. The organization is an LGBTQ+ organization serving the Memphis area and one that Baker has donated to through her work before.
Reading “Loss Protocol” on the downtown 2 train.
Scroll down for pics of the show (photos by Kate Hoos)