It wasn’t directly timed to the Halloween season, but Phoebe Bridgers’ concert Friday night at the Greek in L.A included what surely had to be the most terrifying moment that will occur at any rock show this year… and one that’s presumably been repeated nightly on the singer-songwriter’s current tour, which comes to a close Sunday night. It comes toward the end of her semi-epic set-closer, “I Know the End,” when the entire crowd, as one, erupts as one into an primal scream, taking a cue from the abrupt twist in the recorded version where Bridgers suddenly lets loose with an apocalyptic shriek. For anyone who might’ve forgotten the scream was coming, or hadn’t quite expected that 6,000 people might lean into with Bridgers all at once… honest to God, it was blood-curdling.
Blood-curdling and wonderful, that is. Because most of the time, Bridgers is not interested in offering her audience nearly anything so obviously crowd-pleasing as a constant series of catharses, the way most artists with an ability to instantly sell out two nights at the Greek Theatre might. If records on these things could be kept, Bridgers’ concerts might be the quietest ever to keep a Greek audience on its feet for their entire duration, without anybody in attendance even attempting to start a sit-down wave. She’s a folkie at heart, and quite often in practice. So when she turns up the volume with a climax that turns the threat of personal or societal extinction into a loud, indie-rock maelstrom, it feels earned, and scary, and also a lot of fun.
Any other shivers were on the milder side. The appropriateness of a Bridgers concert coming on a cool late-October evening at the tail end of the amphitheater season was underscored in an appreciative comment by Bridgers’ opening act —Matty Healy, of the band the 1975 (doing quite an underplay, as support artists go) — who said that it was “a good night for a Phoebe Bridgers concert. Fall is upon us.” Autumnal does work for Bridgers, in terms of her ability to make a show feel like a big campfire sing-along, even though not many of her songs are easily sung along with. (They’re too wordy and unrepetitious for that, although key lines do lend themselves to a group-chant, particularly if the F-word is involved.) Every number in the set counts as, at least, a fireside think-along, for fans of an irreverent, cerebral, sensitive and anxiety-prone bent who are likewise inclined to “spen(d) what was left of our serotonin to chew on our cheeks and stare at the moon.” Serotonin levels were probably spiking off the charts in Griffith Park Friday, actually.
Bridgers indulges so little in the crowd-pleasing tropes that most of her pop and rock contemporaries do that it’s still hard to believe she’s gotten to the level she has over the last year and a half without bringing schtick into her music or her act. The level of fanaticism among her audience is in almost inverse proportion to the amount of energy she devotes to overtly courting it. And yet there it was, if you entered the Greek from the north entrance Friday… surely as long a pre-show line for a single merch stand (out of several that were on-site) as anyone has ever seen at the storied venue. Amusingly, after the show, you could see a lot of young people back in line again, toting the ubiquitous branded bags and poster tubes they’d picked up earlier, apparently inspired by the gig to realize they hadn’t bought nearly enough the first time — now, that’s a motivated fan base.
Philosophical treatises could probably be written about why she’s inspired such a big and devoted base while maintaining such a straight face. But in an era when most stars wear their neediness on their sleeves, along with their hearts, maybe it’s the fact that Bridgers keeps both in check that draws her audience closer to her. You can’t exactly accuse her of being withholding — not when one of the hot-selling items at those merch booths was a poster in which she’s portrayed topless. But Bridgers has pulled off the hat trick of seeming to be naked but also a little cloaked, with songs that are downright diaristic in spades yet always end up feeling just mysterious enough to draw you back again and again, with or without the compelling melodies that seal the deal.
Even when it came to having instantly sold out a two-nighter at the Greek, Bridgers wasn’t about to openly gush about the accomplishment or be “humbled” by it, the way any other hometown L.A. hero might about the milestone. For Bridgers, it was mostly an occasion to anecdotally remember sitting in the back section as a youth, watching Crosby, Stills & Nash … and “even though we have a beef now, it’s fine,” she quickly added, referring to her unlikely social-media feud with David Crosby. (Cue an imagined theme-song to “That’s So Phoebe,” which would be a very droll sit-com.)
Bridgers asked how many attendees had been at the previous night’s show — answer: a fair number — before offering her regrets for repeating the same set. “I don’t know that many songs, so I apologize for the déjà vu,” she said. “Most people would switch it up.” She’s nothing if not aware of how she is or isn’t fitting into pop stereotypes, or not really devoting proper attention to certain concert conventions. Introducing “Garden Song,” she said, “This one goes out to… [pause]… who, Marshall?” Drummer and longtime collaborator Marshall Vore was not too much help: “I thought of a dedication, too late,” he said after the song ended. Bridgers finally had a late afterthought: “I learned how to drive in the Rose Bowl parking lot. For those people,” she said, apropos of not much.
The casualness with which Bridgers regarded certain aspects of the proceedings belied a tight, expert 80-minute set that delivered on all key counts, most especially purely musical ones. With her skeleton crew of a band (yes, they’ve still got their glow-in-the-dark bones suits, even if Bridgers herself has graduated to a ribs-‘n’-clavicle designer gown), Bridgers performed the entirety of last year’s “Punisher” album, with a bare smattering of songs from its predecessor. There was also one number from the catalog of her occasional indie-folk supergroup Boygenius, “Me & My Dog” — the one solo-acoustic performance of the night, and as such, the most obvious callback to her beginnings as a junior-high kid being trained in the ways of the elders at the Folk Music Center in Claremont. But even some of the songs involving all seven band members (two trumpeters included) felt just a little more like Americana live than they do on record, freed of the reverb and other effects that “Punisher” producer Tony Berg understandably employs to make them feel a tad closer to rock ‘n’ roll on record. (Emily Kohavi, last seen on the Greek stage playing with Hozier, even turned from a violin player to a legit fiddler in a song coda that veered outrightly into country.) It did get loud. But if you’re somebody who hungers for acoustically based music but finds most of it too milquetoast, Bridgers is the cure for that. Like Aimee Mann before her, she can do finger-picking songs barbed enough to draw blood.
Bridgers doesn’t often advertise how you’re supposed to feel about her songs, which, again, is part of the lure for a millennial-to-boomers audience that’s just fine with not being spoon-fed. (As her song “ICU” says, “I feel something when I see you”… emphasis in her case on the uncertain “something.”) Speaking of seasonal appropriateness, “Halloween” is one of those numbers you could read either way. When she sings, “Baby, it’s Halloween / And we can be anything,” it could be about the vast world of possibilities that consciously embracing wearing a mask opens up… or maybe it’s a warning. Either way, it definitely supplants the Shaggs’ “Halloween” as the best rock song about that holiday, at last. And although it only feels like a mid-level song on the “Punisher” album, it might have risen to become the high point of Friday’s show. A big part of that was a guest appearance on this, along with some other numbers, by legendary L.A guitarist Blake Mills, who contributed even more distinctive parts live than he did on the LP. His extended soloing on “Halloween” — maybe too subtle to be recognized by the entire audience as the work of a guitar hero — sounded as much like a hushed theremin as a guitar. It came off a little spooky but, with Bridgers and regular guitarist Harrison Whitford quietly taking turns singing the line “be whatever you want” in the coda, it was easier to go with the hopeful reading of the song. It felt like a real encouragement to achieve some kind of breakthrough by masking up… in the non-pandemic sense.
Hope comes only in small doses in Bridgers’ material, though. Introducing “Smoke Signals,” she said: “Some of my songs are about having depression on tour. Most of my songs are about having depression in Los Angeles.” Another song, “Scott Street,” was intro-ed as being “about thinking your life is over when you’re 26.” These statements are blunter about her intentions than the lyrics themselves typically are, which has a lot to do about how artfully she embeds her emotions as virtual Easter eggs in the songs, tossing off completely devastating lines in the middle of humorous, detailed anecdotal asides — but then, she is the person who brags, in the middle of the title track of “Punisher,” ““I love a good place to hide in plain sight.” But she probably wouldn’t have generated this much audience adoration if she were too cloaked in streams of consciousness to offer confessions as outright as “Jesus Christ, I’m so blue all the time / And that’s just how I feel / Always have and I always will” — her unabashed equivalent of Brian Wilson knowing he’s gonna feel that way “’Til I Die.” The songs can be more cerebro than they are emo, but sometimes she does go in for the emotional kill.
The video screen behind the band offered pop-up-book tableaus relating to the songs, from a Beale Street/Memphis illustration for “Graceland Too” to a Japanese setting for “Kyoto” to a friendly, Arabian-looking UFO hovering over a cityscape for the song where she hopes she’ll “see a tractor beam coming to take me to where I’m from.” For “I Know the End,” it was a video of a cardboard home-sweet-home multi-story house that ultimately was portrayed as going up in flames. It’s hard to follow that song with anything else, but Bridgers reemerged from her encore to sing a cover of a recent tune she said fulfilled some of her aspirations as a songwriter: Bo Burnham’s “That Funny Feeling.”
Bridgers rarely repeats herself as a writer, even within a song. Although she’s not averse to verse/chorus structure, she usually changes up the words of her choruses, as if it would be a waste of that space to use very many of the same lines when that real estate could be used for a fresh thought. But, ironically, this last stretch felt like the only time she risked saying the same thing twice: “That Funny Feeling” and “This Is the End” are nearly the same song, spiritually thinking. But there is a difference — in the Burnham song, the world ends with a smile, instead of a scream. In Bridgers’ multi-faceted world, maybe it can really be both.
(To read more about Matty Healy’s opening set and their duet of the 1975’s “Jesus Christ 2005 God Bless America” click here.)