Phair enough: 'Exile' 15-year show a clunker

June 25, 2008


When it comes to noteworthy milestones, the numbers are usually 10, 25, 50 and so on. The 15th anniversary seems like something only a polyester bride would celebrate.

But then, Liz Phair has some indie cred to reclaim, a recording career to resuscitate and a new deluxe-edition reissue to sell -- on Dave Matthews' label, no less -- and these were all the reasons she needed to return to her old sounds and former stomping grounds for a sold-out show at the Vic Theatre on Tuesday.

Now 41 and more MILF than coquette, this controversial daughter of privilege from Winnetka is, depending on your point of view, a trailblazing post-feminist icon who spoke with unusual power for a generation of young women during the alternative rock explosion, or a pandering, exploitive wannabe cheerfully using every means at her disposal to achieve celebrity -- the thinking rocker's Paris Hilton.

I have always thought there's some truth in both positions. But wherever you stand, Phair's absurdly ambitious double-album debut "Exile in Guyville" (1993) remains one of the most enduring discs released in the '90s. And since the guitarist and vocalist was always a stilted performer at best through most of that decade, a veteran Liz watcher had to be curious to hear if she could improve upon the past by revisiting it in concert now.

Taking the stage in a skimpy vest, skimpier hot pants and towering heels, Phair started with ''6'1" and -- sure enough -- played her way right through the concluding "Strange Loop" 18 songs and 69 minutes later, with every potty-mouthed confession ("Mesmerizing"), coy come-on ("Flower") and jarring burst of righteous feminine anger ("Help Me Mary") intact from the aural diary of her rough-and-tumble days and raunchier nights in Wicker Park's underground rock scene back in the day.

"Anybody ever live in Wicker Park?" Phair asked before pushing her way through "F--- and Run." (People applauded.) "Anybody ever live on the North Shore?" (More people applauded.) "Anybody ever feel like a schizophrenic like me? Good girl, bad girl, good girl, bad girl!"

That was as much insight as we got into the making of the album or its resonance for so many fans. None of her Chicago collaborators or muses was invited, and none showed. (No Brad Wood, no Casey Rice, no Nate Kato.) And Phair still never bothered to explain how exactly the album was an "answer record" to the Rolling Stones' masterpiece.

In fact, as Phair made her way through the disc with her still off-key voice, distinct lack of onstage charisma and forced stage banter about the Cubs and Barack Obama, backed by various combinations of the three faceless L.A. pros who've supported her on recent tours as the Gen X Sheryl Crow, it was hard not to think that while "Exile in Guyville" stands tall on record, it has gained nothing and maybe even shrunk in live performance.

Come to think of it, it would have been much more entertaining to hear La Liz play that other "Exile" in its entirety. At least she might have felt some connection to that one.

Then, before my two-hour meter on Belmont could even expire, after a few more forced songs as an encore -- including "Polyester Bride" and a truly awful new number with a (no kidding) lyric about "ding dong, the witch is dead" -- it was over, just another car wreck/hit and run in a live career that has never offered anything else.