When I walked into the El Rey Theater on Thursday night, I accidentally bumped into someone near the bar, which prompted an automatic “sorry!” as I shuffled away. If I had lingered, I would have commented on his t-shirt, which read: SAD SONGS MAKE ME FEEL BETTER. That shirt was not a coincidence; the three songwriters on the bill that night all had built reputations on singing sad songs- Julien Baker, the headliner, most of all. And in the sadness, I found bliss.
This was one of those perfectly billed shows where each artist complemented one another beautifully, making for an unforgettable night. Julia Jacklin was first on the stage, opening up the night with her delicate folk storytelling. Everything I’d heard prior to that night by Jacklin included full bands, so hearing her solo was a new experience… one which, I have to say, topped those recorded tracks. She reminded me a lot of Laura Marling, not only in the evocative stories she tells, but also in the uniqueness of her voice. She carries notes with a subtle vibrato, something she made look effortless during her performance. It was breathtaking to witness, and over far too soon.
Julia’s quiet sentiments set the tone for the night, with Phoebe Bridgers following closely behind. Bridgers’ brand of songwriting was more visceral than Jacklin, with vivid suicidal imagery in the very first song of her set, “Waiting Room”: “you’re the gun in my lips/ that will blow my brains out.” It wasn’t always so grim, but Bridgers was also very upfront about how all of her songs were bummers. That explanation almost seems unfair to her, though, as she is a wonderful singer and songwriter, eliciting howls of praise during sustained notes on songs such as “Georgia.”
Bridgers played a half acoustic, half electric set, with a friend accompanying her on another guitar for several songs. The instrumental harmonies were pleasant, and gave the set extra depth, setting her apart from the other two acts of the night. Her performance also felt unjustifiably brief, leaving us with only the assurance that she was working hard on her new album. She did not offer any new information about it, though, so we must settle for listening to her critically acclaimed Killer EP on repeat.
When Julien Baker walked out, she was greeted by an overwhelming energy that she didn’t seem to expect. Baker is full of so much humility, it almost makes me wonder how she has navigated this unforgiving industry. But all my questions are answered in her songs themselves, which contain messages of perseverance in the face of self-doubt and finding silver linings even when things are bleak.
From the very first moment, everyone in the room was fully invested in her performance. The beginning of her set had us all in a stupefied silence, breaking only to applaud at the end of each song. Baker plucked her guitar strings with such control that it cut through me, like a bitter wind. She took care to sing with that same amount of precision, coming to an overwhelming climax during “Rejoice,” from her debut album, Sprained Ankle. “I rejoice! I rejoice!” she wailed, the crowd proudly singing along with her at this point. Baker was flattered that people knew the words, and jokingly invited everyone to come onstage to join her. Of course that didn’t happen, but it was an unexpected surprise when Phoebe Bridgers did come out to sing backing vocals with her for a song.
Julien Baker’s set eventually had to come to an end as all things do, though I felt once again cheated by the time. I would have listened to all three of these ladies play for hours. It pained me to see people actually leaving before Baker came back out for her encore; as much as I understand the desire to avoid traffic after a concert, missing any moments of Baker’s performance has to be considered a crime.
Words: Zoë Elaine
Photogrpahy: Danielle Gornbein