There was plenty of hue and cry when Liz Phair made her supposed U-turn into the pop mainstream a couple of years back. Those firing slings and arrows in Phair’s direction, however, conveniently ignored the fact that — budget aside — her “new” direction wasn’t palpably different from where she’d come from. That continuum was laid out nicely on the first night of Phair’s two-show Gotham stand, for which she flitted between material that made her an indie-rock darling and songs from her last pair of discs — touching on, but not pounding in, tracks from her new Capitol disc, “Somebody’s Miracle.”
Phair began the perf with a passel of acoustic songs — her original milieu — that attested to her increased comfort onstage (and revealed her still wildly uneven singing voice). A serpentine version of “Exile in Guyville’s” “Stratford-on-Guy” set a sultry, defiant tone, but diffident takes on trifles like “Baby Got Going” lost the thread rather quickly.
She picked up the pieces nicely, however, by plugging in and launching into the waltz-time statement of purpose “Shitloads of Money” — not so much an embrace of bling as a coming to terms with the financial realities of impending middle-age. Phair touched on such sentiments frequently over the course of the set, most effectively on “Polyester Bride,” but rather than fret over complexities, she’s learned to strip away clunky metaphor and speak in everyday — some might say soccer-mom — language.
That worked in her favor on several of the set’s numbers, particularly a soft-focus “Everything to Me,” but also flattened the potential impact of others: “Extraordinary,” for instance, sounded half-hearted and half-finished, the sort of thing you might expect in an early elimination round of “American Idol.”
Perf was marked — more so than any of Phair’s recent New York stops — by an easygoing rapport with the crowd. Attribute that to the presence of beau Dino Menighin, who gave her an onstage foil — both in his guitar work and his presence (several of the set’s numbers were sung straight at him) — and a steadying influence.
As such, she was able to weave the old and something new (the groove-based “Lazy Dreamer”) into an intriguing tapestry, rather than a disjointed crazy quilt.
Phair performs at the House of Blues in Los Angeles on Nov. 7.