To suggest that Wednesday night’s gig at The Sinclair was a sought-after ticket would be a grave understatement. Re-sales peaked near an eye-popping $200, and a line of eager fans stretched up Church Street well before doors opened. Phair made a brief Boston appearance supporting Billy Corgan’s acoustic-Pumpkins theater tour in 2016, but it’d been nearly eight years since the indie rock icon’s last proper headlining appearance in town. Anticipation clearly ran high for the Cambridge club date of her Girly-Sound to Guyville tour.
This month marks the 25th anniversary of Phair’s essential debut LP Exile in Guyville — prime time for both a tour and the sort of commemorative repackaging that tacks a few b-sides onto a vinyl reissue and calls it a day. But Matador’s new box set, from which this spring trek draws its name, goes the extra mile by offering as its bonus material the first-ever official releases of Phair’s early trio of Girly-Sound cassettes.
And while the legendary beginnings of Phair’s career are hardly in need of critical reappraisal (the beloved Exile did get its own 15th anniversary tour back in 2008, after all), finally bringing those long-traded tapes to the public in authorized capacity offered both Phair and her fervent fanbase an opportunity to plumb the depths of that early work in some uncommonly intimate settings.
Divorced from context, the tapes themselves sound timeless — like they could be the lo-fi work of an insightful bedroom songwriter from any era with an accessible tape deck – and Phair kept true to that spirit on stage. Joined only by an unobtrusive second guitarist, the focus was squarely on her and the songs, which sounded as smart and incisive now as they ever have.
Opener Soccer Mommy, the fast-rising singer/songwriter Sophie Allison, followed suit, ditching her usual three-piece band to play solo. Allison’s set tended toward the slow and sweeping, especially in the absence of a rhythm section, but compelled nonetheless, even refashioning Springsteen’s lustful slow-burner “I’m On Fire” as slow-core ballad.
When Phair took the stage for her headlining set, she immediately established a tone with the gleefully graphic rarity “Fuck or Die” as her opening number, interpolating Johnny Cash on a tune that warns, “you’re going down on me even if it kills you.” The occasionally startling frankness of Phair’s more explicit lyrics is often pitched as her calling card for the uninitiated, and all these years later, she was quick to remind us of her status as one of the more daring rock lyricists of her day. Shock value this was not, of course; merely one particularly memorable angle to a set of that thoughtfully explored anxieties social, romantic and sexual in all their potential ugliness.
In 17 songs, Phair juxtaposed Exile’s numerous highlights — many of which appeared in elemental form on the Girly-Sound tapes — with rarities like the aching “Ant in Alaska” for a satisfying survey of her early ’90s. Her voice retained all of its shrewdly detached nuance, but the mood between songs was decidedly celebratory as Phair bantered with the adoring crowd about the weather and their attitude toward the local Harvard population. Are any of us affiliated? Do we trip them on their way to class? A resounding “no,” and one tentative “yes,” respectively.
Phair opted to skip the encore break at the set’s end, explaining her aversion to the rock show cliché before simply laying down on the stage for a brief pause, then playing a one-two of her most timelessly compelling tracks in “Fuck and Run” and “Divorce Song” to close out the night amid rapturous applause and high-fives to the front row. Indeed, the traditional encore artifice would’ve felt out of place — we were all friends here.
Photos by Ben Stas’ follow him on Instagram @benstas.