“I didn’t think this would happen again,” Liz Phair sang in her signature song, “F— and Run,” a line written to describe a one-night stand, or something close to it. In a far less rueful sense, the lyric also applies to what’s happening again on Phair’s current seven-city tour, in which she’s performing nothing but 1993-and-prior material, in honor of a recent boxed set commemorating the 25th anniversary of “Exile to Guyville.” With that razor-sharp landmark album, she cut, but she definitely hasn’t run.
Phair opened her brief cross-country outing Thursday night at the Masonic Hall at Hollywood Forever Cemetery, a 150-seat venue she could have easily sold out several times over (as scalper prices clearly indicated). Quick-on-the-draw ticketholders weren’t entirely sure what nature of gig they were in for, especially since Phair has already announced an entirely separate tour of bigger venues for the fall, presumably with a full band (including an L.A. show Sept. 21 at the 1,600-seat Theater at Ace Hotel). The lack of a drum kit on the nearly bare stage at the Masonic told the tale. This would be just Phair and one fellow electric guitarist (identified only as Connor), plowing through not just time-tested material from the ’93 freshman album, but an even greater number of songs from the “Girly-Sound” demo tapes that were only officially released a few weeks ago in the boxed set, after decades of wanton bootlegging. The actual ratio: eight songs from “Guyville” and 10 more that date back to the home recordings revived anew for the “Girly-Sound to Guyville” collection (including a couple, “Polyester Bride” and “Whip Smart,” that were familiar to all from having been re-recorded for subsequent studio albums).
This is, in short, the mini-tour of O.G. Phair fans’ dreams… even if most have to just dream about getting a ticket.
But would she be doing it under duress? Phair hasn’t always seemed as madly in love with “Exile” as some diehards are, and has taken umbrage, as anyone would, at the fan-splaining notion some maintain that it’s the last great or good thing she ever did. (The point of demarcation for many, of course, is her 2003 bid for the pop crossover golden ring, “Liz Phair,” an album this critic loves as much as “Guyville,” severe minority opinion that that may be.) But she seemed genuinely delighted that, with the hoopla over the boxed set, her breakout moment is suddenly the nexus of Gen X nostalgia. And who wouldn’t be appreciative, when folks are freaking not so much about the original LP as 37 demos, a level of fandom that goes well beyond fair-weather? “Thanks for (appreciating) the early work and letting it live again,” she said near show’s end. “I’m very grateful; I’m very humbled.”
Her intention to do some serious fan-servicing with this tour was clear at the outset, when she opened with a song from that era that has never gotten an official release at all, not even on the new three-CD/7-LP set: “F—or Die” (not to be confused with “F—and Run,” obviously), a home recording from the “Girly-Sound” tapes that had to be omitted from the box because it interpolates “I Walk the Line.” (Hard to imagine what kind of problem the Johnny Cash estate could have had with licensing a mash-up full of subtle revisions like “And the condom on your d–k’s the tie that binds.”)
From there on, the 75-minute show was rife with other songs obscure enough that this might well been the first time they’d ever been played in concert — or, if they had, evidence had never made its way to the Internet. “F— or Die” was the case of a song that had never made it onto a record, or probably into shows, because, rights issues aside, it pushed the envelope even for a gal who once announced intent to be your you-know-what queen. But some of the other “Girly-Sound” songs may have been suppressed for the opposite reason. One of the Masonic highlights, “Love Song,” was so lovely a song that it could only have been left off “Guyville” because it was, in fact, a love song of sorts, and probably came off a bit too needy for the fearsome image that was her ticket into the public consciousness. Ditto for “Ant in Alaska,” another track it’s hard to believe she never officially recorded, which she acknowledged writing at home in Chicago while “being just super-lonely.” It’s close to being a conventional — if terrific — lost-love song, even though the Phair of the early ‘90s peppered it with angry rejoinders like “Any shitty little tip-off would do.”
Phair, always a conversational writer, was in a reflective mood between songs, too. When she prefaced a song with, “This freaks me out because I wrote this long before the fact happened,” a fan might’ve expected “Divorce Song” (that came later), but this was “Whip Smart,” about a son. After “Polyester Bride,” she pointed out: “Henry the bartender, (was) a real guy —who has not gotten in touch. When I had to get in touch with Jeremy Engle for that B-side (named after him), that was interesting, calling up a college crush and being like, ‘Hey, I wrote a song about you.’ It didn’t bring us closer, but…” At the beginning of “Polyester,” over the opening riff, she began singing “Sweet Jane,” Cowboy Junkies-style, to point out the similarity. “This whole ‘90s thing has been a journey for me,” she explained.
There was a nod to the eternal resting place-adjacent setting. “I was just upstairs looking at the book of famous residents of this cemetery, and I would just like to invite them all to come in, and if they stand at the side of the stage, that’s super cool with me. I feel like there’s people haunting me all the time anyway.” A few moments later, she added, “Maybe don’t touch my ass, okay?”
At the Masonic, a running joke emerged out of how often a roadie ran out to hand Phair a different guitar — not, she acknowledged, for different sounds, but just if the one she’d been playing went out of tune. “He’s just gonna stand there behind me every song,” she joked. “I remember when I first put out ‘Guyville,’ I went to Los Angeles, which probably pissed off Matador (her then-label), but I wanted a free trip to L.A., and all these labels were like, ‘Come out’… And I remember putting on ‘Guyville’ in some executive, super-duper office and just suddenly realizing for the first time that my guitar on the whole album was out of tune.”
Could’ve fooled us, but it does speak to the savant quality that made “Exile” so refreshing in ’93: Phair wrote, and played, like a one-woman brain trust who hadn’t spent a lot of time over-evaluating standard chord progressions or tunings, so the music sounded as head-cockingly different as the grabby combination of poetry and locker-room talk in the lyrics. Hearing the entirety of the new boxed set is to realize more than ever that the celebrated shock value in a handful of the songs was just part of the story in an enormous outpouring of creativity that helped redefine not just what a woman could write about, but a man, too, even though hers remains a fairly inimitable voice, whether we’re talking about what came out of her mouth or from below the capo.
At the Masonic, that voice sounded literally unchanged, along with her appearance. Apparently, we, in the audience, were the Dorian Gray portraits she’s been keeping in her closet for the last 25 years… although (speaking of shock value) it was bracing for older fans to realize there were some on hand not yet born when “Guyville” came out. “It’s been really interesting getting to know these old, old, old, old songs, and then to remember what it was like at Oberlin when I was there,” she said. “I think my method of creating was to go to a party, not have a guy I wanted to talk to me talk to me, and go home and drink beer and write a song.” Time has marched on, but at the Masonic, we were all Oberlin girls.
The sold-out “Girly-Sound to Guyville” tour continues with dates including gigs in Boston June 6, Brooklyn June 7, and Phair’s hometown of Chicago for a June 9 closer. The larger-hall, six-week “Amps on the Lawn” outing begins Sept. 6 in Atlanta.