The emotional and sonic magnificence of Liz Phair’s sold-out concert at the Chicago Theater on Saturday did not escape the singer. “This is the night of a lifetime,” she said during a brief pause, almost at a loss for words at the raucous reception that greeted her after each song.
Of course, Phair didn’t just go through a random pile of material. The vocalist-guitarist devoted much of the 90-minute set to a start-to-finish performance of her pioneering 1993 album, “Exile in Guyville,” which recently celebrated its anniversary and was recorded in Chicago, where Phair lived growing up. He’s in the northern suburbs and goes to college.
But the exciting, impressive, energetic, heroic and cathartic spectacle represented much more than a warm homecoming. Watching California-based Phair’s joyful reactions and listening to her project feel like she’s been waiting for this event her entire career, with the knowing confidence and infectious spirit she instills in her music. Forgetting all her recent domestic appearances and free from the expectations and identity biases that once caused her to retreat, Phair certainly acted like it.
Those of a certain age who found themselves living here in the early ’90s might find it hard to believe that Phair’s groundbreaking debut came three decades ago. Later a member of the small but thriving Wicker Park arts community that included bands like Urge Overkill, and part of a larger area scene that also included Smashing Pumpkins, Eleventh Dream Day and Touch and Go Records, the singer moved to another part of rock’s epicenter. It helped him change from place to place. Seattle to Chicago.
But Phair’s larger contribution resonated well beyond the North Side neighborhood. Bold, provocative, ambitious and challenging, “Exile in Guyville” permanently changed what women could sing on record and how they could present and express themselves. Released by a small label (Matador Records) without a major licensing or distribution deal, this work received widespread critical acclaim and was noted at the time for its controversial content.
Aside from some lyrics from artists like Sonic Youth’s Kim Gordon and polymaths PJ Harvey and Tori Amos, the messages Phair delivered on her debut weren’t present in popular music—especially in such a clever, unpolished form. The Rolling Stones’ 1972 reference point “Exile on Main St.” It is structured based on . “Exile in Guyville” landed like a bombshell in terms of concept, execution and meaning.
The independent-minded female artists who have emerged since then are indebted to this. The album introduced an ethos, opened a new path for brave storytellers, and made what they did possible. Today, you can also hear it in the assertive, raw approaches of rock-pop contemporaries like Boygenius, Mitski and Angel Olsen. Her presence also pulses through the brash hip hop of Megan Thee Stallion and the City Girls, who subvert male fantasies and traditional systems of domination and reclaim them for their own use.
Phair avoided talking about the seismic impact of “Exile in Guyville” onstage. He kept the jokes to a minimum, limiting the big reveals to thoughts he’d already shared with the press — essentially, a brief reflection on the spaces he occupied when conceiving the album, the uncertainty of youth and the social environment he valued. Phair offered no insight or story about the songs, offering only a passing statement about the record’s connection to Chicago.
Even better, nothing about the presentation felt nostalgic or sentimental. Especially considering everything Phair has perfected her guitar skills for the songs’ off-kilter rhythms and moody textures. And he surrounded himself with a four-piece band that increased his immediacy, presence and weight. He also took advantage of the fact that each of the 18 “Exile in Guyville” songs sounded as if they were released last week; The arrangements and especially the lyrics are unaffected by era and trends.
Wearing a sleeveless dress and leather jacket, Phair appeared to convey a similar distinction in her voice, which retained her familiar speaking tones and high-pitched tone. Apart from losing the peak reach of her falsetto, she sang with a confidence lacking in the past and used subtle phrasing to her advantage. While other singers relied on strength or technique, Phair succeeded with craft, sincerity and intelligence.
Wisely, he made minimal adjustments to the songs. The most consistent change is credited to the fuller, more solid foundations the band has developed compared to the low-fi studio versions. The most obvious change occurred between “Flower” and “Johnny Sunshine”, which saw a team of choral singers create angelic vocal contrast in the floor corridors and on the balcony.
Phair’s explicit “Flower,” in which she detailed her sexual responses, desires, and promises to confront rather than seduce, reflected the increase in urgency she displays in some work that addresses toxic patterns of objectification, manipulation, and stereotyping. He retained the tug of war between explosive dynamics and quiet tension, but sang with a clear and commanding voice, inviting three guitars and a bass to combine with powerful drums without fear of drowning.
The singer paired such liveliness and rough-and-tumble attitude with her sharp-tongued lyrics to great effect. Coming as the OG of painful breakup narratives, “Divorce Song” expressed the truth with Phair’s insensitive speeches and sarcastic answers. Thoughtful “Girls! Girls! Girls!” Flipping the script on who gets to be in control in a relationship, Phair’s sarcastic tone leaves her seriousness about revenge up for debate. In the shaky song “Mesmerizing,” the singer’s nonchalant demeanor and expressed happiness wagged like a corrective finger at the song’s aggressive male protagonist.
For all the humor, laughter, and fun that Phair employs and the cultural disruptions she orchestrates, nothing can top the anguish and alienation at the heart of the spare “Canary” and the deceptively upbeat “(Expletive) and Run.” They served as stark reminders of why “Exile in Guyville” remains so relevant.
Phair and crew closed with six favorite songs taken from the three LPs that followed “Exile in Guyville”; each song reflected his passion for masterful melodies and the flamethrower. Leaning forward with his left shoulder and pulling his other shoulder back, he looked out at the crowd and the balcony as he strummed his guitar. Smiling from ear to ear, Phair understood the importance of the moment.
After all, that’s what he begged for on “Help Me Mary” more than 30 years ago. Righteous anger was balanced by harmony, righteous disgust turned into fame. A well-deserved peace, if you will. And how.
Bob Gendron is a freelance critic.
Chicago Theater setlist for November 18 (“Exile in Guyville”)
“Help me Mary”
“Dance of the Seven Veils”
“I Never Said”
“Soap Star Joe”
“Explain this to me”
“(Expletive) and Run”
“Girls! Girls! Girls!”
“Why can’t I?”
Bob Gendron is a freelance critic.