Saturday, March 14, 2009

I Am Offering You a Free CD. This is Not a Gimmick.

In early 2008, Liz Phair announced that she was planning to perform three special summer shows to commemorate the release of her remastered Exile in Guyville: Chicago (the hometown), San Francisco (where she once lived, supporting herself by selling her charcoal drawings) and New York City (I’m assuming because everything from romance films starring John Cusack to TV dramas starring cops, lawyers and forensic scientists to the Red Hot relationship between The City and The Girls provide overwhelming evidence that NYC is the epicenter of the world.) Naturally, my mind launched directly to “You know something? Not only am I going to New York-- I'm going to New York and Chicago and San Francisco and New York and Chicago and San Francisco! And then I'm going to Washington DC to take back the White House! YEEEEEEEEAAAAHHHHHHHH!!!!" Eventually, though, my mind floated back down into the structural shackles of my reality and I decided I could definitely swing a trip to NYC to see her. I promptly took note of when tickets were going on sale and awaited Phase 2.

When I Am Going to Buy Tickets to the Most Monumental Show of My Life Day arrived, I was giddy in anticipation the entire morning. Tickets were going on sale at 12:00 PM EST and all there was to do was wait. (At work.) As 12 noon approached, I sat in front of my computer screen anxiously awaiting the moment when I could burst out of the Ticketmaster starting gate…
…And then I drifted right back to my default state of scatterbrain and missed the stroke of
noon. At 12:03 PM, I clicked the "Find Tickets" button on the Ticketmaster website to find that "tickets [were] currently not available online..." I thought for sure it must be a mistake. The possibility of the show selling out after three minutes did not exist for me. It did not exist. It had never crossed my mind, so my brain was not wired to process it. By 12:06 PM, still believing that there was just some kind of mistake or misunderstanding (as if I was mistakenly being denied admission into a club or something), I called Ticketmaster. My name had to be on the list. There, a very nice lady informed me that the show had SOLD OUT. Confused...then shocked...then devastated, I slunk back to my computer in a state of sunken horror and disbelief. I sat there staring at the screen...and then dejectedly and in denial, I continued to try to buy tickets online. What else was there to do? I couldn’t believe that after weeks of anticipation, I’d made such an incredibly horrifying, hugely disgusting miss. It was as if I’d been training for the Olympics and after all that blood, sweat and tears, I lost the big race. No— dove into the pool three minutes after the gun went off, then lost the big race. Then thought for sure that there was no way I could’ve lost the big race, so then tried to go back and touch the wall with the telephone instead of my computer. Except I hadn’t even trained at all! I didn’t have to! I’d just waited. Alls I had to do was show up for the big race on time! So, of course, like any good Olympic loser, I just got back in the pool and kept trying to swim my way to the golden ticket.

And all the while, all I could think in that Olympic-sized Ticketmaster pool was, “Those three minutes from 12:00 to 12:03 PM are going to haunt me for the rest of my broken life.”

The End.

Just kidding!!!! Ha! About two minutes into my monotonous, collapsed daze of continually swimming clicking “Find Tickets” on the Ticketmaster website, something incredible happened. Out of the ether, a computer programmer hand from the heavens reached down and listed another NYC show for which tickets were suddenly available online. I hurriedly hopped on this shiny, new "Find Tickets” bus, and just as suddenly as I’d been shot down mere moments earlier, I was on my merry way towards purchasing a ticket for the second show. And thus, I was revived from my weakened, comatose state.

So it is with deep gratitude and pleasure that I can report to you about the show. Having said that, I’m not sure what I can really do. Liz Phair’s performance of Exile in Guyville at Hiro Ballroom in New York City on June 26, 2008 was so good that the act of somehow translating what happened to me and my body during that show into words on a page that you read just seems completely and totally absurd. When I think about the show, I am filled with excitement and joy to the point of bursting. I just want to explode it on to you! And I can’t! And that sounded really dirty and I didn’t mean for it to. But I guess it’s actually appropriate since we’re talking about Liz Phair. Anyway, I’ll do my best.

I went by myself to the show. I stayed at my gay boyfriend’s house and spent the day of the show at his apartment while he was at work. I arrived at the venue nice and early, excitedly vibrated myself inside and waited for Gay Boyfriend (GB) to call so I could meet him outside and return his keys to him. It wasn’t until at least an hour later after I hadn’t heard from him that I realized that the underground, Asian-themed bunker that is Hiro Ballroom is insulated from any Verizon cell phone tower that wants to communicate with my mobile phone. I guiltily ran outside to see if GB had left me any messages while I had been waiting underground. He hadn’t. So with Liz coming on stage at any moment, I ran back inside, squirmed my way back to my original spot, tried to forget that I was the only thing standing between GB and his entrance to his own home and hoped that he would forgive me.

Liz came on stage with three dudes. I did not recognize them. No Brad Wood or Casey Rice from the olden days. Just Liz Phair and three unfamiliar dudes who soon melted away as Liz looked out into the crowd, shot us her familiar nervous, excited, winning smile and launched into the opening chords of 6’1”. [At this point, I am very aware of the fact that you, as a reader, really have no use for any of what I am saying if you’re not familiar with, or have at least heard, Exile in Guyville. So my suggestion to you now before you read any further is to go out and purchase it. If you need assistance with this, let me know. I will either purchase it for you or sit with you as you listen to my copy.]

Now I’m not going to do a song-by-song response to the show. The fact that she played the entire album all the way through was as more amazement-inducing than you can imagine. All the song arrangements were as true to the album’s as I’d ever heard them. This was especially exciting during 6’1” which, while a regular character in her set lists over the years, had taken on a more adult contemporary vibe a la her latest album of new material, Somebody’s Miracle. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. It just hasn’t been as true to the original album version. On June 26, 2008, however, it was. So while I won't do a song-by-song response, I will provide some noted highlights, which bear a striking resemblance to a partial song-by-song response. Do not be fooled.

  • - Glory was damn amazing. The songs that feature just Liz and her guitar were easier to keep true to the album version. Glory was damn amazing. Her performance of this song took my love of this song to a whole new level.
  • - I am not a musician or a singer. Having gotten that disclaimer out of the way, Dance of the Seven Veils features a vocal jump of about four octaves. Or something like that. Thus, I was heavily anticipating Liz’s live rendition of this song. I was easily impressed, as it was off the freaking hook. So, so good.
  • - A lot of Liz Phair’s appeal for me revolves around her voice and the way she sings. She’s got this amazing, flippant, seductive drone throughout much of Exile in Guyville that she is very willing to play around with (as I cited in my expert octave observation of Dance of the Seven Veils). She falls and rises as she frolics around her vocal range and in doing so, completely changes the sound of her voice. See: Johnny Sunshine or anything she did before Exile in Guyville. [Seriously, do you have the album queued up to listen to as you read this? If not, you really need to. REALLY! Right now. Do it.] So Never Said is another song that has stayed on Liz’s set list throughout her career since Exile in Guyville, including during her Lilith Fair days. Again, she adult contemporized it a bit and during the bridge when she sings, “…so don’t look at me sideways,” one of the changes she made in her live shows in the 1990’s was to go to a higher key instead of staying at her low register. During her Exile in Guyville show, she kept it low just like on the CD. ( Behold the difference .)
  • - During Explain it to Me, Liz mis-sang a lyric. Instead of singing, "make ‘im measure up decades longer..." in verse one and then "make ‘im measure up ten times longer..." in verse two, she sang "decades" twice. The fact that it is entirely possible and likely that I know Liz’s lyrics better than she does (and definitely do in the case of Explain it to Me) is an odd and powerful insight into the artist and the art-ee. I know I’m not the only one who knows Liz’s lyrics, and perhaps music, better than she does. And the fact that this art that she made and then set free into the consciousness has touched so many lives to the extent that it has is mind-blowing. For her—the creator of the masterpiece—it’s something that she wrote decades ago and that she hasn’t really had a fixed relationship with since. She’s been making life and other music. I’ve been listening to it regularly and intimately for 15 years and continue to discover new, fresh, incredible things about it. (Thanks in large part to these .) Anyhow, I digress. During Explain it to Me, Liz also turned on the disco ball, which was reminiscent of her performances of White Chocolate Space Egg. The shimmery semblance of reflected water always heightens the experience. (And reminds me how lucky I am to even be in the pool.)
  • - Canary is a conversation that takes place between Liz’s vocals and Liz’s piano. That’s it. No drum set stealing all the thunder; no guitar taking all the glory. Liz didn’t play the piano. At first I was sad because I really would’ve loved to see her sit behind the keys and meander her way through this song. [I know you know what I’m talking about because you’re listening to the song right now.] My disappointment soon subsided, however, when I realized what it meant for one of the mystery dudes to play the piano part instead: that Liz would stand on stage front and center and bathe us all in the haze of her intimate gaze. She gently looked out at each and every one of us while she dropped lines like, “Send it up on fire/deaf before dumb...send it up on fire/death before dawn.”
  • - Girls! Girls! Girls! is another song that has the minimalist instrumentation called “guitar only." I’m running out of fancy ways to say, "this song was also off the damn hook." Perhaps, “off le damn hook [with a silent ‘h’]”. French accents usually sound pretty fancy. Like Glory, Liz’s performance of this song brought me to a whole new level of love. It was like I had dinner with its parents. As I’ve previously stated in my life, one of the things I love about Liz’s CD’s is that she backs up herself. The more Liz vocals I get, the better. And I’ve always loved picking apart her varietal vocal licks. Unfortunately, much to my chagrin, Liz has never translated this multiple-layers-of-Liz effect to the live stage. I know all of her backing parts though, and I can hear their ghosts when I hear her live. This was especially present during this song, whose CD version consists of Liz backing herself up by half-talking, half-kind-of-singing in some kind of character voice that sounds like a high version of herself trying to mess up the main vocal the way an annoying younger brother tries to mess you up while you’re counting by yelling out random numbers. And I, of course, am familiar with this high character voice’s parts. While Liz did not split her voice like Rahzel and back herself up in a way that was true to the CD version, she did throw in a backup line one time. The line was, “You better check with me, daddy." [At the 1:27 mark.] So when I sang this ghost part’s line out loud at the show, Liz sang along. I loved this. I love this. This is the crazy, tiny, detail-oriented stuff that I appreciate. I LOVED this.
  • - Divorce Song is a classic legend of a song that Liz has also played regularly at shows since 1993. The part that is never there that I miss every time is the CSSHHHH (that’s called onomatopoeia) after she sings, “...boxed it up and buried it in the ground...” The CSSHHHH sound is made with the cymbal (obviously). It made its much-missed-by-me appearance here at this show.
  • - The notes I took for Shatter say, “Shatter was amazing." Really, Jennifer? Ya don’t say. Well I think what I meant to say was that Shatter is a long jam of a tune. Nothing Phish-y about it— just ambling, angling guitars that drift in and out of the foreground and gently make way for Liz’s emotive vocals. I was really amazed at how well the atmospheric parts of the album came across live.
  • - Johnny Sunshine features a vocal octave jump akin to Dance of the Seven Veils. The randy, prominent guitar that reaches out and lassoes me when I listen to this song on the CD literally reached out and lassoed me at the live show. My notes for this one say that “Johnny Sunshine was off the hook,” (of course they do) but really it was I who was like a fish on a hook because when Liz played this song, I was completely and totally hooked. I think the amazingness of this show has caused me to go insane and break into nonsensical prattle.
  • - Stratford-on-Guy is one of the greatest rock songs of all time. When she played this song, I thought, “My jaw has fallen and it can’t get up.”
  • - Strange Loop? ends with an incredible jam session. The live rendition of this long, album-ending instrumental jam literally put me in a trance. I can now unequivocally declare that Liz Phair is a hypnotist.

The encore Liz had been playing in the shows leading up to this one had consisted of Chopsticks, a new song, and Polyester Bride as the closer. On this night, she played Chopsticks, and then scrapped all the other stuff and asked for requests. After several, enthusiastic shouts from the crowd (I yelled “CRATERLAKE!!!” for my brother), Liz decided to try May Queen and Wild Thing— a gem from Girlysound—and ended with Polyester Bride. So we got four songs instead of three, including rough, impromptu versions of May Queen and Wild Thing. We got to watch Liz figure out how to even start May Queen with the words, the key and the guitar part. During Wild Thing, Liz invited a lucky young gentleman on stage with her! She joked about how this could be his moment and once he got up there, they exchanged a few words, and then she took off her guitar and gave it to him to play. She went back to singing to the crowd, trying to remember the words, when suddenly the dude on stage wearing Liz’s guitar busted out with the guitar part for the chorus. She turned to him and said, “...OK yeah, that’s the chorus. You gotta do the verse." He fiddled around a bit and then Liz turned to him again and said, “Start on A and then go to E and then go to G." It was adorable and spectacular.

After a show like that, I knew I had reached the pinnacle of my distinguished career . Then, Liz announced more Exile tour dates. MORE! The NYC show went from being one of a special three-city tour to one of a several-city tour. And because I am Lady Luck, she announced a show in Washington DC at the 9:30 Club. As you might expect, there are a few notable differences between the 9:30 show and the Hiro show.

First of all, at Hiro Ballroom, as I looked around, it suddenly occurred to me that the woman of my dreams was probably standing there in that very crowd. I mean, the commemorative Exile in Guyville show??? She had to be in there somewhere, right? Well, I’m not sure. Maybe. If she was, I didn’t talk to her that night. So when the 9:30 Club show rolled around, I figured that the woman of my dreams must really be in the room. Like, for real this time. Well again, maybe she was, but if so, I didn’t talk to her that night. Or at least if I did, I didn’t know it was her. Oh well.

Prior to the age of the re-released Exile in Guyville, nostalgia was sad and unpleasant for me. I didn’t like the feeling of missing things, so I avoided it whenever possible. Now, in the aftermath of the re-release, I find nostalgia quite comfortable. (Indeed, warm light on a winter’s day.) At Hiro Ballroom, I saw all kinds of groups of friends that had come together to go to the age- defying show. I saw one group that looked like they were right out of a prequel to Sex and the City. They were so happy and excited with their cocktails and cute outfits and trendy bags and carefully sheared hair. I was there alone and suddenly wished I had my own cast of Friends friends to enjoy the show with too. I thought about my middle school and high school friends and how Liz had so willingly revisited her old stomping grounds to make her Exile in Guyville Redux DVD. There was a huge emphasis in the air on remembering and commemorating 1993. I thought, “Should I contact all of these people that I haven’t seen or talked to in years?? Should I tell them that I’m thinking about them and wish they were here with me???" In the end, I decided that they might find my sudden enthusiastic reappearance a bit abrupt and confusing since they weren’t going through the same bout of nostalgic affection that I was. So I settled for just the enjoyment of watching (in a non-creepy way) groups like my favorite Sex and the City crew bond through their collective step back into 1993.

In DC, I didn’t have to do that. The main and blinding, glaringly wonderful difference between the two shows was the fact that for the 9:30 Club show, several old faces from middle/high school came along for the ride. Old faces (that still look quite sprightly and fresh) for whom Exile in Guyville was also a defining part of their 1990’s.

It was a truly amazing joy to experience that night with all those friends from the past, and the brother responsible for my hearing Liz in the first place. The major difference during the show revolved around Flower. In NYC, Liz had a singer named Blake Lively do the backup vocals. She did a fine job and since she was integral to creating an arrangement as close as possible to the one on the album (Liz’s classic backing-up-herself technique is all over this song), I welcomed her presence and performance. For the DC show, Liz did not have a Blake Lively. So she announced early on in the show that she was going to invite someone on stage to sing with her. My friends leaned into me and said, “We are going to cheer so loud and get her to pick you." The purist I am replied, “But the backup parts on Flower are the really high parts! I can’t sing that high! I’m an alto!" My friends looked at me like I was insane and said, “Who the hell cares?!? It’s LIZ!" Of course, they were right. It’s LIZ! Who cares if I can’t sing high! Then I’ll just sing her part! Whatever! I’d be on stage with her! I’ll sing Happy Birthday! If I could manage not to throw up, it would be a shining moment of my life! So when Flower came up on the set list, Liz made the call to the audience for her backup singer and my friends did me proud with their hootie hoo’s and highty ho’s. Liz looked directly down and to her left, which was completely and totally not in my direction. She chose two ladies, one of whom I talked to outside the club before the show. I won’t talk anymore about how they did because since I’d made the transition from thinking I couldn’t go up there and sing, to really wanting to go up there and sing, my sadness and disappointment that I wasn’t chosen clearly clouded my vision and opinion of those lucky girls. Dammit.

And then, of course, there was the part when, in a gorgeous, conscious moment, Liz asked what time it was and said that (in addition to the night of history she was currently making), she wasn't going to let us miss the other history being made on August 28, 2008. "Not on [her] watch," she declared. Really? Does it get any better?

I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention that at the age of 41, Liz looked damn incredible. At one point during the DC show, I realized that I was consciously restraining myself from yelling, “Take off your pants!” And I’m not even like that! I'm not some sex fiend! The fact that Liz is smokin’ hot has always been icing on the cake, not the actual cake. Or even the filling between the layers of the cake. (In my defense, her top appeared to be the top half of some kind of swimsuit or bodysuit, so if she had dropped her bottoms, I think she would have been respectably presentable.) Still, after 15+ years and two Exile in Guyville shows, it is plainly evident to me that not only does Ms. Phair still got the look—more importantly, she’s got the sound.

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