Fiery Phair charms the Orchid


August 26, 2005


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 three-night stand.

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.




When: 8 tonight
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 Alvarez."

Unfortunately, we 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 celebrate.

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."

Contrast that 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?

The indie-rock 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?