Gorilla is one of Manchester’s best venues. It’s reasonably sized, but small enough to feel intimate, ideal for hosting an artist like Julien Baker. This tour is the UK’s first chance to hear the richer soundscapes and lusher vocal of new album ‘Turn Out the Lights’ played live, yet the room is only three-quarters full and not everyone seems to be here for the music; boozy local students are propping up the bar.
Support act Becca Mancari hails from Nashville, Tennessee. Most of the songs she’s playing tonight come from debut album ‘Good Woman’, a record that favours a country sound, enhanced with drums and pedal steel guitar. Here, she’s accompanied by a lead guitarist. Between songs, she is relaxed and funny, earning cheers for her statements about gay rights. Her biggest song ‘Golden’ comes over brilliantly. Elsewhere, ‘Devil’s Mouth’ benefits from Mancari whooping with delight and adding space for a guitar solo. Sadly, some songs don’t work so well. Higher notes often miss their mark and she struggles to make these stripped-back versions work in this context. Adding distortion to her guitar gives it more power, but is too harsh for the surroundings. (3/5)
Julien Baker shuffles on stage, looking a little lost among the machine-shop décor. Dwarfed by her Telecaster, she seems to be avoiding the spotlight. Fumbling with her guitar pedals, she steps up to the microphone, stares into the distance and strikes the harmonics which make up ‘Sprained Ankle’. And then she begins to sing. A magic spell is cast.
A few notes here, holding a note there, Baker weaves a delicate web that ensnares the whole audience (even the rowdy drunkards). This is where cuts from her debut shine. Delicate and haunting, they’re all about the silence, finding beauty in the gaps where notes ring out and where her voice hangs, then subtly rises. Leaning back from the microphone, she opens her mouth wide, delicately shifting the notes. Nothing quite prepares you for how haunting this is. Effortless isn’t the right word, because she’s singing her heart out.
Twice, Baker tries to break the spell by explaining the stories behind her songs. Describing their meaning and the sorrow she explored to create them. The audience listens, attentive and somehow, the atmosphere becomes more intimate. She then sings ‘Everybody Does’ and ‘Rejoice’, which are so affirming they allow her to smile.
Shifting to the piano for ‘Shadowboxing’, we enter the second part of this three-act performance. Violinist Camille Faulkner joins Baker on stage, adding a mournful texture to ‘Televangelist’ and ‘Hurt Less’. It’s a heart-wrenching shift. As comfortable on the piano as she is on guitar, Baker takes the forlorn songs as close to a sing-a-long as they can go. Finally, she teases out songs, using her loop pedals to create richer soundscapes and losing herself in the freedom of her more expansive final run. ‘Appointments’ closes an hour and a half set that felt to last a heartbeat, but it was unforgettable. (5/5)