Photos by Julia Leiby
Last year, Julien Baker put out one of the most heartbreaking albums of 2015 with her debut Sprained Ankle. After missing her previous stops in D.C., I couldn’t have been more excited to watch her play sad songs at Monday night’s packed U Street Music Hall show.
Philadelphia’s Grayling opened the show with grungy vibes and lots of energy. They admitted it themselves: they weren’t exactly the type of music you’d expect from an opener at this show, but they actually proved to be a great fit. Guitarist and lead singer Lexi Campion’s strong vocals and the band’s heavier rock sound created memorable songs that managed to be moody and upbeat at the same time.
When they were done, the stage was completely cleared for Julien Baker’s set. She performed solo with her guitar and a collection of pedals—a major contrast to the full band that had played before her—but that was all she needed. Her powerful voice and looped guitar lines were enough to fill a room twice as big.
Shortly into the first song, Baker unfortunately ran into one of any performing musician’s greatest fears: feedback. It kept creeping up throughout the set to the point where Baker sometimes seemed hesitant to play or sing too loudly. She was visibly frustrated whenever a small screech happened, but pushed through each time, and the crowd supported her every step of the way.
After the backstory intro to “Good News,” more than halfway through the set, the feedback struck again in full force. She stopped the song to ask for the vocal reverb to be turned off, which helped mitigate the problem. At that point, both Baker and the audience were able to laugh about it, relieving the room of any tension that was present before.
Despite the technical issues, Baker gave a beautiful and compelling performance. Both guitar and vocals alike whispered and swelled at all the right times on songs like “Rejoice” and “Everybody Does,” yanking your heart up and down during her already emotional songs. The crowd stayed respectfully quiet during the songs, with the exception of cheering for the instantly recognizable intro riffs (which, honestly, are on every song). In an atmosphere like this, you were able to experience the full weight of Julien Baker’s music.