After walking on stage and addressing the sold out audience with a simple, yet encompassing, call of “hometown,” Liz Phair’s homecoming was underway. In town to commemorate the 15th anniversary reissue of her most powerful work to date, Exile in Guyville, one couldn’t help thinking that this performance might be a touch bittersweet for the songstress. After all, Chicago is the city where the album was conceived, yet it is also the place that seems most critical.
The concept of playing an album fifteen years old in its entirety made the evening feel more like a celebration than a performance. This doesn’t mean the show was without sincere moments of reflection, though, such as Liz discussing her time in Chicago: “…I remember sitting in my little apartment in Wicker Park and the crackhead neighbors and just how cold it would get in the winter. This song reminds me of all of that.” This candid dialogue gave way to the most captivating moment of the evening with “Explain It to Me” followed by “Canary”.
It was during the opening chords to “Fuck and Run”, though, that the audience began to stir and make its presence felt. But while the set was sprinkled with various ruminations, the one-way conversations never let the audience get too close. “Does anyone live in Wicker Park? Does anyone live on the North Shore? Does anyone else feel schizophrenic like me? Good girl, bad girl, good girl, bad girl” was probably the most personally telling statement she would declare all evening. Then again, did she really owe us anything more?
At the conclusion of her set, Phair was called back for an encore she was admittedly unprepared to play. She proceeded to play three more songs, which included “Chopsticks”, an untitled new song that was dedicated to the president of her past record label, and “Polyester Bride” (the audience helping her out by singing along to a forgotten verse). The newest song received the most inspired treatment of the night, and why shouldn’t it? It is the most relevant to Phair’s life at the moment.
As a whole, the performance was not the most inspired. Given the circumstances, though, it was probably all it could have been. The problems with the show are the very same reasons the audience even attended a 15th anniversary play-through: The raw emotional lyrics, the lo-fi basement sound, and the overall diary-like intimacy that the album exudes are not particularly easy qualities to recreate in a live setting. In other words, this album does not really belong on a stage in front of 1000-plus people. The album is one that has become as personal to fans as to the artist; essentially people can’t help expecting, or at least hoping, for a show tailor made to their own experience with the record.
As many of the criticisms that appeared the next day reinforced—it is nearly an impossible task to deliver a successful show to all. Did we expect some answers or insight into the making of the album or some validation that she is still that same girl who recorded these songs? Did we expect her to pour the same emotion into sentiments she felt 15 years earlier? Maybe we hoped she would deliver to us that same feeling the album gave us when we first heard it, even though our own feelings have probably changed in that time.
It’s possible then, that the flaws in the performance were more to do with the expectations the audience had walking into the venue. The only way to have approached this show was in the exact manner that Liz Phair delivered it; a detached celebration of an album that leaves its indelible mark on those who listen, regardless of time, or criticism, or who Liz Phair was then, is now, or will be in 15 more years.