After a bland set at
Lollapalooza in July with her band of Hollywood-slick session players,
former Chicagoan Liz Phair nearly redeemed herself with a brilliant
performance at the Black Orchid on Wednesday, the first of a sold-out
A notoriously awkward
live performer, Phair, 38, ironically is best when she has the least to hide
behind, relying on her idiosyncratic guitar playing and her lovably limited
voice, which has improved considerably thanks to recent vocal lessons.
In the faux-1930s
supper club ambience of the Black Orchid, ensconced in the yuppie haven of
Pipers Alley a world away from her grungy roots in Wicker Park's Guyville,
Phair delivered a mostly mesmerizing, 22-song, 80-minute acoustic set with
minimal and tasteful backing from lead guitarist Dino Meneghin. And she has
rarely been more confident or inspired.
EVENING WITH LIZ PHAIR
Where: The Black Orchid, 230 W. North
Tickets: Sold out
Phair remains one of
the most distinctive artists to emerge during the alternative explosion of
the '90s, a singular songwriter blessed with a wicked literary wit, an
ebullient and self-assured sexuality and a unique way of twisting a
memorable melody. As she flirtatiously encouraged shouted requests from a
crowd of thirty- and fortysomething fans, she provided a welcome reminder of
the strength of her catalog, pulling one gem after another from her first
three albums: "Exile in Guyville" (1993), "Whip-Smart" (1994) and "Whitechocolatespaceegg"
(1998). We got passionate, fiery readings of the devilishly raunchy "Flower"
and "F--- and Run," the unforgettably catchy "Mesmerizing" and "Supernova,"
the anthemic "Polyester Bride" and the exquisitely written story-song "Uncle
also got a sampling of tunes from 2003's self-titled "Liz Phair" and her
fifth album, "Somebody's Miracle," which will be released Oct. 4.
"Come on, you can
tolerate it," Phair cracked after announcing she'd be unveiling some new
material. But indeed, tunes such as the new disc's title track, "Wind and
the Mountain" and "Everything to Me" were something to endure rather than to
In 2003, Phair made a
calculated decision to overhaul her songwriting, moving toward generic,
adult contemporary radio pap a la Sheryl Crow. To manage this pandering
about-face, she hired Chicagoan Gregg Latterman, a former CPA who founded
Aware Records and became the current champion of middle-of-the-road schlock
by bringing us multiplatinum mediocrities such as Train, Five for Fighting
and John Mayer.
To compare Phair's
first three albums to her most recent discs is to see a schizophrenic split
unprecedented in rock history since Jefferson Airplane became Jefferson
Starship. She defends this as part of her inevitable growth as an artist --
a specious and nonsensical claim, given that the melodies and lyrics of her
earlier work are infinitely more sophisticated, complex and mature than the
sunny platitudes and hummable inanities of late.
"Once upon a time
I was so restless in love / When things were fine I changed my mind just
because / Now I see how wrong and reckless I've been / Each frog has a
prince / Just waiting inside of him,"
Phair crooned during "Somebody's Miracle."
greeting-card silliness with the words of wisdom she offered while speaking
as "Henry, my bartending friend" in "Polyester Bride": "You're lucky to
even know me / You're lucky to be alive ... Do you wanna be a polyester
bride? / Do you want to hang your head and die?"
My God, what happened
to this woman's self-esteem, let alone her brains? What possibly could have
inspired one of the sharpest songwriters of her generation to turn to
writing such utterly banal crap?
underground that Phair once called home is unjustly quick to yell "sellout"
whenever an artist attempts to reach a broader audience, but it's hard not
to suspect a grain of truth to that charge here. The artist herself admitted
as much when she performed one of the key tracks that, in retrospect, paved
the way for her stylistic shift.
"It's nice to be
liked / But it's better by far to get paid,"
Phair sang in the now prophetic "S---loads of Money." The problem she faces:
If the SUV crowd doesn't buy the music she's crafting for them, will any of
her older fans remain? The strength of most of Wednesday's show suggests
that perhaps they will, but it all depends on how much more of this dismal
new dreck Phair expects us to tolerate.
Opening the show was
one of Latterman's recent discoveries and hypes, Christian-rock
singer-songwriter Mat Kearney, who boasted all of the appeal of a wad of
chewing gum stuck to the sole of your shoe. Inspirational lyric from his
song "Renaissance": "This is my renaissance / This is my one response /
This is the way I say I love you." Honestly, Liz, is this the future you
really want to pursue?