In less than two years, Memphis, Tennessee’s Julien Baker has gone from unknown local musician to beloved indie rock gem. I still recall when I first heard her 2015 debut, Sprained Ankle — at that point, she still had under 1,000 Facebook followers. Now, with over 50,000, it’s obvious she’s captured the hearts of listeners across the country. It’s no surprise her stripped-down style of emotional purging translates well to the live setting. The fairly large crowd that packed The Granada in Lawrence, Kansas recognized this, joining in a night full of catharsis. Between Baker and opening act Luray, the show showered attendees with brightness amid brokenness.
Virginia natives Luray led off a short night with warm, resonant indie folk tunes. At this point, the group is in the same spot Baker was two years ago in terms of Facebook followers, but they showed a ton of promise opening for the continually surging phenom. They shared a lot with the headliner sonically, even without the melancholy. With a mix of banjo riffs, carefully picked guitars, and gorgeous vocals from Shannon Carey, they had a knack for luminous textures.
Luray did an effective job readying a teeming audience (fittingly, for a female-fronted bill, the makeup was a majority women) for Baker’s deeply emotional air. Carey didn’t invoke sadness as much as it did beauty. Behind her, the instrumentation adequately fit the charm of her voice. Before the last song, she explained how grateful the fourpiece was for the crowd’s attentiveness, let alone the opportunity to open the show at all. That’s because there was hardly any chatter during the sets at all. As a result, everyone was able to take in the vibrancy of the up-and-coming band’s pleasing folk-rock sound.
The anticipation built once setup began for Baker’s performance. While it wasn’t a full house, the crowd was large enough to construct a nearly overwhelming feeling of excitement. At the same time, it maintained an intimacy (and quietness) that would prove necessary for the Tennessee singer-songwriter’s tunes to be felt in full.
As Baker took the stage, applause went through the roof. I was almost worried her mere five-foot presence would be overwhelmed by the excitement in the room. But once she started playing, everyone stood still and silent. In fact, I don’t think I moved a muscle for the entire hour of her set. She led off with “Sprained Ankle”, and with her looped chords, she set a solid base for her tender voice to dominate the room. Once the track ended, a young man handed Baker a handwritten note (a moment so touching that it nearly destroyed me). The audience cheered, and Baker lightening the previously serious mood by complimenting their dedication.
Armed with an acoustic guitar, she then took a more folk-oriented turn. “Blacktop” and “Good News” sharply contrast one another in energy and duration, but both glistened in the stage’s foggy backdrop. Once the latter began, you could hear people quietly singing along for the first time during her set (after all, it’s incredibly freeing to belt out the line, “You’re gonna run, it’s alright, everybody does”). With glistening eyes all around, you could sense the power of her music — most of it written when she was a mere teenager.
After that, Baker dug into her most immersive track, “Rejoice”, which she once called her “mission statement.” During the performance, I started noticing young women in tears to my left and right. With this selection, the honesty in her lyrics meshed perfectly with the rawness of her voice. Right when it seemed like her tiny lungs wouldn’t be able to push out any more air, she found enough in her to yell out the final line, “I rejoice.”
During the set, we were treated with two songs from Baker’s upcoming sophomore LP, one played on guitar and another played on piano. Both maintained the same resonance of her previous material, suggesting that the singer has found a comfortable dynamic switching between both instruments. She stayed at the piano following the second unreleased track, giving a touching performance of “Go Home” that found her completely enveloped in the moment. You could feel the punch of the piano transition to soothing Sunday morning worship, suggesting hope despite the struggle she otherwise depicted in her set.
Baker finished out her set with “Something”, a fan favorite that features the catchiest guitar melody she’s ever written. With faces in the crowd quickly turning to smiles, the mood had clearly lifted. The lyrics still convey sadness, but the instrumental helps her burns her brightest candle in an otherwise dark landscape. It was a finale that left fans satisfied, yet longing for more.
The crowd left The Granada with heavy, yet determined hearts. Julien Baker’s music sinks listeners to the level of her detailed struggles, bringing empathy and optimism to the surface as a result. You could notice how the heavy air in the building brought everyone together. It’s rare when you get an artist as beautifully cathartic as Baker, and she offered a more vulnerable view of her expression than ever at last Saturday’s gig.
Later that night, I read a tweet from an attendee who asked when the lump in your throat from the show goes away. But, with how memorable the night was, I doubt anything about it is going to fade for a while.
Featured Photo Credit: Kaitlin Garney