For more than a decade now, rock stars big (U2, Bruce Springsteen) and small (Teenage Fanclub, Matthew Sweet) have gone on tour to play an old favorite album in its entirety in concert.
Leave it to influential ’90s alt-rocker Liz Phair to one-up them, doing something unprecedented: She’s on tour playing the songs from the bedroom cassettes that were later transformed into her acclaimed 1993 album, “Exile in Guyville,” and other records.
It’s not surprising that Phair is breaking new ground because that’s what she did with her debut album. Described by her at the time as a song-by-song response to “Exile on Main Street,” the Rolling Stones’ 1972 classic, “Guyville” was a rock landmark, liberating women to frankly discuss sexuality, unapologetically use locker-room language and unhesitatingly tell guys to buzz off. And to do it with verve and volume.
The lo-fi album is raw emotionally and musically, so rudimentary in musicianship that some detractors found “Guyville” hard to listen to. Still, this feminist breakthrough was voted the best album of ’93 in a nationwide critics poll.
To celebrate the 25th anniversary of her signature recording, Phair has released a boxed set, “Girly-Sound to Guyville,” and undertaken an exclusive seven-city tour to promote it. St. Paul’s Turf Club was one of the lucky venues to land a concert, and it was packed Monday night with 350 women — and men — of a certain age (mostly in their 40s).
“It’s great to be back in Minny and the Midwest,” proclaimed Phair, 51, who grew up in the Chicago suburb of Winnetka, earned a degree at Oberlin in Ohio and now lives in Los Angeles. “I’m a Midwestern girl. It’s just what it is.”
It was a quick-hitting, crowd-pleasing if shortish 73-minute performance. Backed by electric guitarist/harmony singer Connor Sullivan and her own electric guitar, Phair was more listenable than the musically one-dimensional cassettes she recorded under the moniker Girly-Sound, material featuring mostly just voice and guitar. Back then, her lyrics were sharp, clever and biting, but her guitar work was undeveloped.
At the Turf, her lyrics were still affecting if less startling and her guitar skills still limited. But Sullivan added some guitar depth, finesse and even a concise solo or two. Moreover, Phair’s likable, educated-but-naughty suburban-mom personality couldn’t be denied. As she rocked out during the song “Mesmerizing,” her smile seemed half cocky and half happy that she pulled off the piece.
Phair didn’t talk much about her tunes except to say that one unrecorded tune, which opens and closes with a verse from the Johnny Cash hit “I Walk the Line,” was written about AIDS and that her father was an infectious disease specialist.
Her more familiar songs connected with the fans, who sang along enthusiastically. Highlights included the twangy “Whip-Smart,” the punchy “Girls! Girls! Girls!” and the angsty “Ant in Alaska,” during which Phair threw herself into her vocals.
All the selections were stripped down. That might have led a male clubgoer to shout: “You need a drummer, Liz.”
“You want to get up here?” the seasoned star asked rhetorically. “Come back in the fall, you jackass. That’s a full band tour, by the way.”
Phair will be back in Minny on Sept. 15 at First Avenue. That concert is already sold out.