This review has been about a week in the making. My clumsiness knows no bounds and cares not for casualties lost in the destructive path it creates. On this occasion it was my laptop that suffered, for I knocked over my water bottle onto my keyboard midway through my first draft of this post. An accidental drowning, if you will, which would be a fun name for my next bummer-punk band that will never exist. Still, though several days have passed since my experience, Julien Baker’s performance remains drenched in my memory like the water in my laptop.
On Monday night, still full from the previous night’s Mother’s Day feasts, I made my way to All Star Lanes, a bowling alley in Eagle Rock. After taking advantage of a modestly priced fist of Foster’s beer, my attention was focused towards a small and dimly lit corner in the room of the bar. Julien Baker, a petite young lady from Tennessee, stepped onto the stage and began her soundcheck. When it was time, the audience shuffled closer, the radio was turned down and the doors were closed to silence the clashing of bowling balls and pins in the adjacent room.
Julien made her way to Los Angeles for the night to perform for a small but sizeable crowd of eager listeners. As I looked at Julien onstage and around at the people in attendance, I was immediately overcome with a fond memory that instilled a specific type of nostalgia I hadn’t felt in years. I was taken back to a house show in 2009 at a friend’s house with beer, flannel and ear gauges as far as the eye can see. The lineup featured my favorite punkers Koalacaust and acoustic performances by Paul Baribeau and The Boy Who Could Fly. When the acoustic sessions began, all eyes and ears were focused on the gentle picking of the strings and the emotionally driven vocals that followed. I will never forget the respectful silence and attention we gave to these artists and the beautiful, inspirational songs we received in return. I got chills because I knew something special was happening and those same chills were reintroducing themselves to me now.
Julien started to strum reverb-laced sound waves out of her guitar, uplifting the silence and giving it character as her signature voice danced with each note. The feeling I was experiencing was the sense of personal connection and it was very apparent in the atmosphere that the crowd was feeling the same. She sung flawlessly, delivering the raw emotion that can be heard on her recordings from the Soundcloud profile I constantly feed play counts. Julien reached delicate yet powerful tones for lasting impact on tunes like “Something” and “Blacktop” and at one point after a song I swear she wiped a tear from her eye, which gave me an excuse to do the same after she played my personal favorite “Everybody Does”. Before concluding her set, Julien shared with us the story of how her album, “Sprained Ankle”, came to be so appropriately titled. When you get a sprained ankle, your mother would probably tell you to walk it off, which in itself is a curious concept. You have to intentionally give yourself pain in order for it to, in time, get better. After a second of reflection, Julien joked, “Well, that’s the lamest thing I’ve ever said into a microphone”. She proceeded to finish with the title track, “Sprained Ankle”, layering melodies and harmonics over each other on her loop pedal. Although most of her lyrics’ content contain sad experiences, the instrumental melodies shine with a sense of hope that would take the bitter taste out of tears.
This was a performance I will never forget. The ambience in the room resembled that of garage shows and open mic nights in coffee shops, which is a personal preference of mine. It’s difficult nowadays to go to concerts and receive an intimate experience. Since the show, I’ve looked online for pictures of the performance because I didn’t take any (I’m a terrible cameraman). I found no photos whatsoever and, as I recall, don’t remember seeing any phones out of pockets at the show. It seemed as though everyone in attendance had a purpose, which was to connect and listen to these Tennessee tears. For a brief moment, in the dark corner of a bowling alley, I was reminded of why I decided to pick up the guitar in the first place.
Julien Baker has often been compared to Pedro The Lion and The National but I would like to add SOAK and Nick Torres of Northstar/Cassino to the mix. You can listen to Julien Baker on her Soundcloud and Bandcamp pages, along with her other band Forrister, who I highly recommend listening to next.