Julien Baker’s sound is tailor-made for in-person spaces. Her previous live performances were largely one-person shows, utilizing the power of her commanding voice; looping, minimal arrangements; and haunting silence to forge an emotionally transparent connection with the crowd. The occasional accompaniment of a backing violinist never disrupted the singular feeling of vulnerability that her live set consistently would elicit without fail.
But in the age of quarantine, Baker has taken her music to new heights. Following the release of her latest album Little Oblivions, a record filled to the brim with equal parts self-laceration and unyielding hope bolstered by big full-band arrangements, Baker’s music has undergone a sort of metamorphosis akin to that of the butterfly. With the expansion of her signature sound, personal confessionals have transformed into anthemic catharsis for the masses.
The magnitude of these changes were on full display Thursday Mar. 25, during Baker’s livestream for Audiotree’s ‘Staged’ Virtual Concert Series. Streamed for 24-hours only on Audiotree.tv, Baker and her live band performed from the Hutton Hotel in Nashville, Tennessee, showcasing a remarkably powerful new live set sure to garner a wider audience when in-person live-shows become a possibility once again.
Much like a traditional concert, Baker’s ‘Staged’ performance was opened by Los Angeles bedroom-pop act Mini Trees, who played a modest four-song set. From a remote small studio space, the band’s blend of intimate and danceable alt-indie sounds set the tone of the night. Frontwoman Lexi Vega spoke to the nonexistent crowd between songs as if it were a normal concert experience, building a feeling of closeness through the screen.
The stream switched venues as Baker and her band took the stage. Right away, the band opened up with Little Oblivions highlight “Faith Healer,” and the differences from her previous, pre-pandemic live set became immediately clear. Hard-hitting drums as well as multiple backing guitars, keyboard and bass boosted Baker’s vocals, giving her songs the proper sonic heft to match their already immense emotional intensity. The band swiftly transitioned into more recent cuts such as “Heatwave” and “Relative Fiction”; the sentiments of her lyrics struck deeper during the former while the lighters-up chorus of the latter transcended the taped performance. Pummelling through tracks such as “Ringside” and “Highlight Reel,” Baker’s 50-minute set felt closer to the emo and post-rock acts of her musical inspirations than she’s ever come before. The band played through the songs with the confidence of a veteran act, jamming out through psychedelic, hardcore-influenced musical outros with Baker at center stage, headbanging all the while.
Though the majority of the setlist featured primarily tracks off of Little Oblivions, it was the songs in Baker’s back catalogue that were truly given the chance to shine brightest. The new full-band arrangement of “Turn Out The Lights” was the absolute show-stopping pinnacle of the setlist, taking the already phenomenal, uplifting standout track from Baker’s 2017 album of the same name to blistering new heights. This was Baker’s newfound post-rock reality fully realized in all its glory. Along with deep-cut “Tokyo,” a one-off single from 2019, the set offered a glimpse at the potential power of the full-band sound to reinvigorate and elevate Baker’s previous work.
But Baker’s new live show left room for the smaller, intimate moments too. Switching to piano, Baker performed “Song in E” solo as her bandmates exited the stage. Similar to its place on her latest album, the track provided a welcome change of tempo and breathing room as Baker neared the final stretch of the setlist. Baker’s live set has a push and pull to it, full of exhilarating highs and lows, like an indie rock communion.
Fans of Julien Baker will be pleased to know that her shows will never be quite the same — for the better. Yes, she’s still a fearless singer/songwriter with songs that lay her innermost demons bare for all to hear. But with her arresting, fully arranged live-sound, the concert experience feels not just personal, but also entirely universal. The metamorphosis is complete.
Vincent Tran covers music. Contact him at [email protected].