Review by AVA LIVERSIDGE
Photos by LUIS MORENO
Phoebe Bridgers describes her sophomore record, Punisher, as “A diary about your crush during the apocalypse.” Seeing Bridgers perform a hometown gig at Los Angeles’ Greek Theatre confirms how deeply this paradox resonates with a burgeoning generation and how Bridgers’ fusion of aching grief and irony speaks to young people weaned off a pandemic and grieving isolation.
Our first sighting of Bridgers was during the opening act. Matty Healy of the 1975 performed an intimate acoustic set, a far cry from most of 1975’s alt-rock spectacles, before a surprise duet of the group’s “Jesus Christ 2005 God Bless America.”
Seeing the two perform together recalls how Bridgers was intended to be the opener on the 1975’s world tour before the pandemic struck. The roles would seemingly reverse and Bridgers’ career and cultural mainstay would be transformed over the next few months. As resounding melancholia blanketed the world, Bridgers’ music quickly took hold and the coffee-shop singer metamorphosed into a bonafide rock star.
Bridgers kicked off her hometown gig with “Motion Sickness,” the lead single on her debut record, A Stranger in the Alps, that launched her in the direction of notoriety. Three years ago, in 2019, I saw a nascent Phoebe Bridgers perform “Motion Sickness” and others off her first record with Bright Eyes’ Connor Oberst at LA’s Teragram Ballroom — a storied, but far smaller venue than the Greek. The number of fans packed together in the Greek’s pit last night, all vying for a spot closer to the beloved performer, could comprise the entire audience at that 2019 show. But, besides a bit more showmanship and the larger auditorium, “Motion Sickness” sounded virtually the same — just as uncompromisingly honest and catchy as my first live listen.
This opener was followed by two of the other more upbeat takes across a generally mellow catalog, “The Garden Song” and fan-favorite “Kyoto,” to compose a swift three-track run that refused to dawdle. Beginning with “The Garden Song,” on the stage’s background is projected a storybook page that corresponds to each respective track on Punisher– the set’s narrative artwork reflects the confessional storytelling that Bridgers is so celebrated for. With these first up-tempo tracks, we see Bridgers has grown comfortable with the tour’s setlist (this is their penultimate show), but also the ease in playing her hometown, at a venue at which she saw shows growing up, just miles away from the Rose Bowl parking lot where she apparently learned to drive. A deep nostalgia and pride characterize the show atop her already wistful discography.
The crowd is composed of throngs of young people donning Bridgers’s trademark skeleton jumpsuit to match her and her band, and it’s made clear to and for whom her grievances and mourning speaks. The austere charm of her confessional lyrics, cloaked with painful honesty and a healthy dose of cynicism, is testimony to the spirit of a generation. Bridgers, in skeletal regalia and with a half-dead lilt, champions death and sorrow as close friends and a congregation of fellow skeletons sing along.
Here, the set begins to swell, like someone’s last gasp of air before breaking into sobs. Title track “Punisher,” marks the first of many times phone flashlights were unsheathed. The song, a tribute to Elliot Smith, a preceding LA denizen of whom Bridgers is a near-explicit child of, is dedicated to music that boasts a chilling sadness, one that cuts straight to the bone. This is followed by a particularly haunting version of “Halloween” during which musician Blake Mills, who played on much of Punisher, was invited on stage as guitar accompaniment; the result was an eerie, almost shadowy guitar solo on the languid track. To cap this run of transitions, Bridgers shares: “Most of my songs are about having depression in LA,” another ineffable homage to the Elliot Smith idiom, before launching into “Smoke Signals,” which now features robust violin executed by touring musician Emily Kohavi.
The ensuing four songs plant seeds of the heavy desperation that will weigh on the rest of the night’s set. On “Chinese Satellite,” yesterday’s opener, Charlie Hickey, was invited onstage as vocal accompaniment as Bridgers sings straight at the sky in what seems to be deep spite for her stars; “Moon Song” featured a watery guitar part and wailing vocals that climax as the track unfolds. However, “Savior Complex” stands out as an absolute acquiescence to the ironic self-deprecation and profound yearning that marks much of Bridger’s sound; a swelling gothic violin part and guitar arpeggios coalesce into a final lament.
As the set has fully downturned into a wistful tragedy, “Funeral,” another folkish tune off her debut, further exhibits Brigers’s cultural relevance. The track is laden with an aching lyrical tone and elicits a crowd of thousands singing in unison, “I’m so blue all the time / And that’s just how I feel /Always have and I always will.” There’s a gravitas in seeing just how clearly Bridgers is the mouthpiece of a generation resigned to aggrieved malaise. The crowd was reverent — even light-hearted heckling or shouting was scarce — as they responded to the product of their era.
“ICU” acts as a quick reprieve from “Funeral’s” emotional drudge and is smoothly executed before the aching recommences on “Scott Street”– still the nostalgic retrospective that it was when I saw it performed as a duet with Oberst, but far more instrumentally intriguing. The newly-arranged sprawling trumpet and violin speak to the risks and musical growth Bridgers underwent on her sophomore record that, in many ways, shunted the strictly-folk confessionals off her debut.
The night begins to culminate in two tracks, both introduced by Bridgers as “love songs.” For a final moment of sobering astringence, the entire backing band leaves for an intimate take of “Me and My Dog,” off Boygenuis, one of PB’s side projects with fellow alternative artists Lucy Daucus and Julien Baker. This solo cut elicited palpable adoration from the crowd that was already hanging onto and internalizing her every word– it was one of the night’s many standout moments. The second love song, “Graceland Too,” paid homage to the legendary Beale Street and features Marshall Vore, a main collaborator on the record and touring percussionist, on backing vocals and banjo, another risk for the LA singer-songwriter.
The story of the night continued to unfold on-screen with artwork to accompany each track, but when Bridgers arrived at the night’s befitting closer, “I Know the End,” the house projected behind her went up in flames, the blaze spreading as the track unraveled. As momentum built with crescendoing vocals and drums and J.J. Kirkpatrick on a wailing trumpet, Bridgers and the entire theatre broke out into a definitive primal howl– the house completely aflame in the background.
In that spectacular moment, it became clear that, despite all of the crumbling hope and desperation that permeates Bridgers’ storytelling and the pertinence with which this depression has cut through the hearts of her listeners, this crowd is, in fact, not going to fade away, but rather, quite literally, burn out in fits of passion.