Julien Baker at Electric Ballroom (photo by Kate Hoos)
After two long years of setbacks and disappointments when it comes to planning trips or getting to see live music during said trips, sometimes life does you a solid and things finally work out and even better than you originally planned. That solid came to me in the form of my twice re-scheduled trip to the UK to celebrate my 40th birthday (which was already over a year ago now) and discovering after I’d made arrangements and booked my flight that somehow it was magically lining up with Julien Baker’s first UK/European tour since before the pandemic. While this was supposed to be a vacation where I remained outside the four walls of music venues and also didn’t shoot as much, I couldn’t pass up the chance to head to a few shows and shoot a bit while traveling, this one being very high on my list. (I also shot some smaller/DIY shows in Bristol and Southampton along the way too, I had to keep it fully on brand for me/FTA after all.)
The last time I saw Julien Baker play was at Beacon Theater in NYC (see pics/words), which is a resplendent, old fashioned theater on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. It is a beautiful and truly lush venue, but truth be told spaces that large (and with seats) have never been my preferred venues to see shows. I was very excited to check out Electric Ballroom for the first of Baker’s two night run though and it did not disappoint. Located in the heart of Camden Town, London, I found that it was much more my speed and despite it being a 1500 cap venue (so hardly a small affair), it managed to lend itself to a more personal feel for the audience and a more intimate vibe throughout the evening. Baker put on a fantastic show the last time around of course, but I felt far more connected at this show than I had felt in New York.
Wasting no time getting right into the thick of things, Baker and crew started their set out with “Hardline,” the harsh opening organ blare radiating from the stage to fill every inch of the room. The setlist was built heavily around Little Oblivions, hitting eleven of the twelve songs (only “Crying Wolf” was omitted), and stuck with the structure she has used for most of this tour—several songs with the band, a few older songs solo on guitar or keys, before bringing it home with the full band at the end— for a thoughtful three arc narrative. Sprinkled throughout were a number of earlier tracks and a few outliers from her catalog, the one-off singles “Tokyo” and “Red Door” both made appearances and both sounded fantastic flushed out with the full band arrangements; “Red Door” being a particular highlight for me as I’ve always loved the guitar work on this one. The audience remained in absolutely rapt attention for the entirety of her set and you could hear a pin drop during some of the quietest moments of the solo songs, fans opting to sing along mostly during the full band arrangements instead.
“Red Door” from night two of her run at Electric Ballroom
While I do very much enjoy the glimpses at seeing Baker solo in her current set (since I never saw a full solo set, having managed to miss every single NYC show when she was still playing solo due to many of my own touring commitments at the time), I do think that the addition of her live band does add a significant depth that really allows her work to shine to its fullest. To quote myself from my writeup of the last show I saw: 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. This is an assessment I still stand by, even more so now as this unit has been out on the road for several months getting stronger with each show no doubt.
Baker’s humble and delightful nature came out throughout the night in between songs when she addressed the crowd with a certain shyness, at one point filling an extended period of silence by saying “I didn’t think of anything to say here” and later poking fun at herself saying “I know my banter is second to none.” Her endearing charm was perhaps on fullest display during the solo portion when she made a mistake during “Sprained Ankle” while setting up the loops and hit a wrong note. She immediately stopped and said “I think it’s worth it to admit that that was not the right note,” before jokingly saying “What if I just let that go? Yeah it was the right note…” before starting the song over.
I may be among the minority of people who actually like these moments at shows, when artists are less than perfect and show their human sides, because it is far more of an authentic moment and the most realistic/honest performance you could ask for really. (It also makes me feel better as a musician remembering every wrong note I’ve ever hit during a show too.) Someone later called out “you’re beautiful” and Baker was seemingly taken aback for a moment, before saying bashfully, but with a distinct hint of cheek, “you know, I’m realistic.”
I’ve been vocal before about never liking to miss openers because you often get treated to something very special when you head to shows early (or on time as it were), and this show was the perfect example of that being an excellent habit to stick to. Keeping with Baker’s knack for picking really great and well-matched support acts, she again nailed it with having Ratboys out on the road with her. They opened the show with a set of affable and relatable indie rock songs that perfectly set the stage for the evening. I’d heard a few songs here and there before the show, but this was the first time I really got a good listen to them, which I now have realized was a glaring error on my part not digging in sooner.
The big stand out for me was “Elvis in the Freezer,” the tale of singer Julia Steiner’s dearly departed cat, Elvis, and how she said goodbye. This was something that had particular emotional resonance for me after losing two cats six weeks apart less than a year ago, and in fact having come face to face with the absolutely unbearable yet unavoidable situation described in the words I’m not trying to mistreat you/ But the nurse says, “Here’s the needle.” The song is sad yet in a way silly, the absurdity of a cat in a freezer helping to ease the blow of losing said cat, because after all, if you don’t laugh, you cry— laughter being something that has helped me as I continue to heal from my own losses.
Ratboys- “Elvis is in the Freezer” at Electric Ballroom 5/17/22
Indeed life did do me a solid in making sure I was there for this night, to greet spring in a city far from home, and to find a little slice of queer joy in the process. A really big solid if you ask me.
Setlist: Hardline, Bloodshot, Shadowboxing, Favor, Relative Fiction, Highlight Reel, Red Door, Heat Wave, Ringside, Sprained Ankle (solo), Happy to Be Here (solo), Song In E (solo), Faith Healer, Tokyo, Repeat, Sour Breath, Appointments, Ziptie
Scroll down for pics of the show (photos by Kate Hoos)