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Julien Baker makes it hurt less at Turner Hall

Julien+Baker+performing+in+New+York+in+2017
Julien Baker performing in New York in 2017

Julien Baker performing in New York in 2017

Photo by Chelsea Pineda

Photo by Chelsea Pineda

Julien Baker performing in New York in 2017

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It can’t be easy to be Julien Baker on stage every night. Many artists have emotionally heavy lyrics, but very few are as bare and raw in their performances as her. There is nothing to hide behind in her songs’ sparse arrangements. Her lyrics of despair and depression travel a short path from her mouth to your deepest emotions. She makes you feel things, whether you want to or not.

When she came to Milwaukee’s Turner Hall Ballroom last night, the mood was right. Opening the show was Tancred, the solo project of Minneapolis-based vocalist/guitarist Jess Abbott. Abbott, backed by a three-piece of guitar, drums and bass, served as an interesting musical foil to the minimalist arrangements of bill-mate Baker. The four-piece drove their songs forward with pop-punk rhythms and indie rock melodies. There was an inescapable pulse to their set. They set an exciting and energetic tone, just enough energy to even out with the sobering gravity of what was to come.

After their set, there was a buzz through the crowd. An unanticipated liveliness had been breathed into the evening. But as soon as the house lights dimmed and the headliner walked out on stage, the room silenced. In the hundreds of concerts I have had the privilege to attend, never have I seen a room go quiet as quickly as when Baker played the first notes of “Turn Out the Lights.” Never have I seen a more intense fixation on an artist and every move they make. It was chilling to feel the collective combination of respect and adoration that every audience member had for Baker.

She meant something to everyone there. And no, the irony of that doesn’t appear to be lost on her. “I know I meant nothing, nothing to you / But I thought I meant something, something, something” Baker sang on “Something” from 2015’s “Sprained Ankle.” She meant something to everyone in that room because she so boldly and beautifully has put heartbreak into words. Before anyone’s breath could be taken by her performance, the entire room’s breath was taken by simply her presence.

Turn Out the Lights, released October 27, 2017, is the second album from Julien Baker

Many artists get on a stage and take on an otherworldly presence. Everything about them is gripping, engaging, powerful, but largely inaccessible. It becomes easy to dehumanize them and misunderstand them as this “artist” figure. Baker could not have felt more human on the Turner Hall Ballroom stage.

“Every night of this tour there has been at least one moment that went completely, unavoidably and unforgivably wrong,” She said after about four songs, during which the only crowd noise was the cheers in between songs. “And I am immensely grateful to have that happen at a job where I am already doing the thing that makes me feel better about it.”

The set went on as this powerful human bore her heart on stage song after song. Her incredibly minimal set-up lends itself perfectly to her sound, but don’t let that understate her musicianship. Armed with an electric guitar, acoustic guitar, piano and a loop pedal, Baker makes it seem effortless to build lush soundscapes that envelope the listener in her sonic world.

It has to be exhausting to bring yourself to such a vulnerable place every night. The set is cathartic in a way that can’t be put into words for a crowd member, but it’s so emotionally draining that you can’t help but wonder how she can do it so often (and so eloquently at that). Most people go out of their way to avoid the dark places of their mind, but Baker is making a career out of doing it.

“What I love about life is that it makes such fools of all our seriousness,” she said with a grin as her guitar refused to tune after her third try. A few short songs later a garbage can would be rolled around the back of the ballroom, overpowering her soft and subtle song and upsetting more than a few of the people in the crowd. It was a perfectly fitting moment of irony and realism. We don’t get a say in the moments of intensity in our lives. They rarely come at times when we are ready or willing to process the magnitude of the situation. We’re left to grapple with our situations as the world spins madly on, the clamor of an industrial world drowning out the silence and solemnity of our emotional selves.

Being Baker every night can’t be easy. But waking up every day isn’t easy for everyone either. The Julien Bakers of the world know that. And she knows if her song helped her through the day when she wrote it, it can do the same for someone every time it’s played.

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