Good from Phair, Phair from Good: Liz Phair at the Fillmore
photo by the author
To me, Liz Phair will always be that mousy girl with dishwater hair from the neighborhood – the one who was the first to start drinking and who always smelled faintly of cigarettes and tuna.
One day she started hanging out with your brothers instead of your sisters and soon enough she was also the first girl to wear holes in the knees of her jeans.
What she lacked in looks and likability she made up for by muscling her way round with affected confidence. As a result, the boys eventually wanted her, the girls eventually hated her and she became the girl that you couldn’t forget.
On the eve of the 15th year anniversary re-release of her landmark album, Exile In Guyville, Liz Phair took the stage at San Francisco’s Fillmore Auditorium to play that album in its entirety to a capacity house of devotees.
Recently liberated from a contentious relationship with Capitol Records, Phair’s first emancipated move was to oversee the long-rumored (and presumably lucrative) re-release of Exile on her new label, Dave Matthews’ singer/songwriter-friendly ATO Records. Celebrating that occasion with a handful of “performing Exile in its entirety” shows around the country, Phair was met by an audience in anticipation of a very special show.
Dressed in daisy dukes, tank top, leather jacket and hideous leggings, Phair unceremoniously strapped on her trademark cream-colored Fender Mustang and dove into “6’1”” for what would be the start of a frank if somewhat uninspired journey through the album which made her career.
To that end, she exhibited a true-to-form live presentation of Exile. Backed by a more than capable anonymous three-piece band, Phair kept everything simple, never straying from the original material. Unfortunately, this included most of the warbling vocals and weak guitar playing she first demonstrated on record 15 years ago. Though most musicians make noticeable technical and performance improvements over a decade and a half, Phair maintains much of the original general lack of proficiency that has plagued her career and kept much of the mainstream at bay, despite frequent press notices that she’s since had vocal training and overcome her notorious stage fright.
Of course with Phair and specifically with Exile, it’s never been about the chops. She burst onto the scene in the 90s with a ready-to-please audience awaiting the unabashed honesty and vulnerability she was willing to display in her songs. Standing apart from the throngs of cutesy corporate chick rockers and unwashed flannel-clad angsters, her music-as-a-confessional approach was enough to see her through the rest of the decade.
So though live performing has never been Phair’s forte, the aforementioned “6’1”” as well as “Never Said” were predictably good, as those “hits” have been staples of Phair’s live set for years. Surprising was a heartfelt version of “Explain It To Me,” which she prefaced by telling everyone if they bought the album re-release they could find out who the song was about on the bonus DVD documentary. A likewise tender “Canary” followed.
A nothing-special version of “Fuck And Run” would have been anticlimactic as a show closer, but with almost half of the album to go, the no-show Phair was lucky to have an audience do the heavy lifting for her, their enthusiastic singing carrying the song about compromise and yearning that’s made her so many fans over the years.
Likewise disappointing was a sexless version of “Flower,” which lacked any of the sincerity and coyness that had originally made it more significant than the “blowjob queen” label it birthed for her. Afterward, she tagged it as “the dirtiest song ever” to which the audience whooped in return — but Phair ought to spend some time with her son on MySpace to see what’s happened in 15 years since she asked to bang her would-be paramour in a canine manner.
The gears were also audibly rusty on numbers such as “Soap Star Joe” and “Mesmerizing” but she managed to bring everything home with a truly electrifying rendition of “Stratford-On-Guy,” — clearly the show’s highlight — which received thunderous applause.
After much stamping and whistling from the crowd, Phair returned to the stage, not very sheepishly apologizing for have no more songs on Exile to play and for being unprepared to play anything else (note: she played her supposedly unprepared encore at the other Exile shows around the country). Nonetheless, she capably crept through her Whip-smart opener “Chopsticks,” and a new untitled number which targeted her former label, Capitol Records (with a chorus to the effect of “ding dong, the witch is dead”). She finally reigned in the night by amicably butchering a solo version of “Polyester Bride,” laughing along with the crowd as she fumbled through the chords.
Littering the night with anecdotes about near-squat living (apparently at one point having been able to use her toilet and see Polish construction workers look up at her from renovating the floor below) and ruminating on a failed relationship and listening to The Rolling Stone’s Exile On Mainstream “over and over, in only a way a girl could understand,” Phair kept the audience engaged on a personal level if not a musical one — and that has always been her greatest strength.
Like that neighborhood girl masking her insecurities and shortcomings, Phair has first made her career as her own best press agent, purveyor of context which allowed her to endear herself to a listless cult in need of an icon. It’s a shame with her the songs always come second, because when we get honest glimpses of Liz Phair, she can be one of the most beautiful girls in the world.