It’s hard to say who had more fun Saturday night at First Avenue: the sold-out, resoundingly Gen-X-aged crowd or Liz Phair herself.
Wearing a bright-yellow T-shirt from St. Cloud’s Uff-Da Records given to her pre-show, the star of the show seemed happy to be back on the road with a full band. She was especially thrilled to be back at First Ave for the first time in a decade. She also mentioned how glad she was to be back in her native Midwest. And she visibly got a kick out of watching the crowd kicking it up to her songs.
“I love a rowdy crowd,” Phair said as the audience kept hooting and hollering several songs into the 90-minute set.
The 1,500 fans certainly had reason to be enthusiastic, too, as this was perhaps her most accessible, discernably crowd-pleasing show in 15-plus years. Even more than her stripped-down Turf Club gig in June to mark the 25th anniversary of her seminal debut album “Exile in Guyville,” she played a whole lot of songs that the audience wanted to hear, and she played them the way they wanted to be heard – with a tight, heavy, mostly new, four-piece backing band.
Plenty of “Exile” tunes still dotted the set list, starting with the opener “Flower” and ending with a giddy two-song encore of “F--- and Run” and “Divorce Song.” But many of the highlights that came in between were from Phair’s other 1990s albums – proof there’s a lot more to her discography than “Exile.” Although, there wasn’t a whole lot from the 2000s.
After tearing through “Flower” with a darkened stage and no drums, both the band and the stage lit up full-tilt for the second song, 1994's “Supernova,” Phair’s nearest thing to an MTV and rock-radio hit. Then came two snakier, more snide ‘90s nuggets, “Johnny Feelgood” and “Cinco de Mayo,” both played with palpable grit by her band and a sly grin by Phair.
That smile grew even wider as Phair welcomed out Sadie Dupuis from perfectly picked opening band Speedy Ortiz to play “Blood Keeper,” a 1998 B-side to Phair’s album “Whitechocolatespaceegg” that Dupuis herself plucked out of obscurity and posted a recording of before this tour. It was a fun duet but hardly lived up to the songs that followed.
“Uncle Alvarez” was turned into a stormier, more melancholy rocker to great effect. “Never Said” and “Polyester Bride” prompted joyous audience sing-alongs. She played one new song, “The Game,” which was something of a downer but fit in nicely. And at least one of her early-‘00s songs, “Extraordinary,” kept the energy level amped up (not so true of the pre-encore finale “Why Can’t I,” though).
Phair made several shout-outs to First Ave, home to some of her earliest gigs outside her native Chicago (where she played a day earlier for RiotFest). “It’s never bad here,” she said early in the set. Near the end, she got downright effusive about the place and the Midwest, including when she said: “I never play this stage without thinking of who’s played it before me. There aren’t that many places left with this much history.”
Here’s hoping this all means plenty more First Ave gigs are in her future.
The set list from Saturday’s show:
- Cinco de Mayo
- Johnny Feelgood
- Blood Keeper
- Uncle Alvarez
- Everything To Me
- The Game
- Never Said
- Help Me Mary
- Take a Look
- Polyester Bride
- Why Can't I?
- ENCORE: F--- and Run
- Divorce Song