It wasn’t just 30 minutes of one band; it was over two-and-a-half hours presented by a group of talented women.
Crystal Ballroom, Portland, OR
The solo set, a sequence in the middle of shows by singer-songwriters that now otherwise play with full bands, is an often magical moment where the artist, stripped to essentials, is able to nakedly play their more intimate material. While the recently-formed boygenius (all lower case, no space, giving the name an understated quality befitting their music) was the de facto headliner for a Portland evening, their tour isn’t even being billed as a boygenius tour. Instead, it’s billed under the names of its three members: Julien Baker, Phoebe Bridgers and Lucy Dacus. Each of their sets for the evening felt somewhat like an elongated version of those singer-songwriter solos, a 45-minute chunk where each member could take center stage and play their songs. While they didn’t exactly play solo—Bridgers would perform with a backing band, Baker playing with a violinist—it still felt like a singular performance with several intermissions.
The beauty of boygenius is that it’s a wholly democratic experience, with each member equally sharing songwriting and vocal duties. If there were a way for the three to play their own songs simultaneously to avoid an implied hierarchy, it’s likely they would have opted for such an approach. The sheer size of the evening, however, meant earlier performances were more likely to be missed as the audience filtered in. By the time I arrived at the Crystal Ballroom, Dacus had already left the stage and Bridgers’ was midway through her set. Bridgers, with a full band, told a story about playing Elliott Smith’s “Whatever (Folk Song in C)” the first time she played with Conor Oberst—when she told him Smith wrote the song, he insisted that it must’ve actually been her. After finishing the song, she announced, “Now, I’m going to play another, non-deep cut Elliott Smith song, just to be completely extra,” before launching into “Say Yes.” Bridgers is no Elliott Smith, but she manages to fully put herself into those songs, a necessity when performing two back-to-back covers by the same artist, one who happens to be arguably the most beloved to come from Portland.
What amazed me while watching Bridgers, and then Baker directly afterwards, was that these sets sounded immaculate. The Crystal Ballroom has notoriously mediocre sound, but the singers’ bands fit the space perfectly, helped by the fact that the crowd, so often loud to the point of disruption, maintained reverent silence. By the time Baker—who played with a violinist and a rainbow-strapped Telecaster, which provided a nice visual respite from full-black worn by everyone who took the stage—reached Sprained Ankle bruiser “Everybody Does,” her wailed line “You’re gonna run/ It’s alright, everybody does” cut through the silent, packed crowd.
“You could be doing anything with your night, and you’re here, which is a fact that is not lost on me,” Baker stated a couple songs into her set. She’s the star of the three, her crushing lyrics carried by her delicate, sparse guitar-picking and her piano flourishes. Though her style—with most songs getting a dramatic, often belted-out finale—may wear thin for some, her stark lyrics and lush production are perfect for anyone who’s mad for sadness.
The three women returned—now wearing coordinated black blazers, festooned with stars and their respective initials—flanked by the players who joined Bridgers and Baker. The band played through the boygenius EP—their only original material at this point—and a cover of the Dixie Chicks classic “Cowboy Take Me Away,” which inspired an immediate and excited “shut up!” from someone in the crowd (met with a huge laugh). With this trio, typical worries about the indulgence and vanity of the supergroup melt away, each member bringing her own strengths to the project without any of it seeming forced. They present themselves more like a group of similarly sorrowful friends teaming up to outsmart their own sadness. At one point, as Baker shredded at center stage, Dacus and Bridgers got down on their knees and cartoonishly bowed down around her, giving us a glimpse of the chemistry that makes their music sound so promising.
Their set lasted a scant half hour—something you might want to hold against them were this a regular show. But for this type of performance, you must readjust yourself. It wasn’t just 30 minutes of one band; it was over two-and-a-half hours presented by a group of talented women, showing us how impressive they are on their own, before revealing how effortlessly they come together.