Liz Phair has been called a lot of things in her short career. The Chicago native, who first made her mark with 1993’s “Exile in Guyville,” has been characterized as everything from an indie-rock pinup girl to a post-feminist chick icon to a hip ’90s mommy (in the wake of the birth of her son two years ago).
But she’s never been called a rock star. Until now.
The Phair on display Sunday night at the Vic Theatre dispensed with all the media-friendly role-playing and glib sound bites and, with the help of a top-notch band, just got on with the rocking. And it was good–very good.
Phair isn’t a natural singer: Unlike Sarah McLachlan and Natalie Merchant, her Lilith Fair tour-mates this past summer, her vocals will never be her strongest point. But her performance at the Vic was almost enough to make you forget that fact–and that’s saying something, considering what a scared and easily flustered performer Phair’s been in the past.
Her real talent lies in her incisive portrayal of the guerrilla war between the sexes, which is why she seemed most comfortable half-singing, half-growling the accusatory lyrics of “Never Said” or smirking through the twisted “Johnny Feelgood.” Those two songs represent the dual appeal of Phair’s songwriting: She may have a real knack for scolding sheepish lovers, but she casts just as harsh a light on her own half-understood motives.
If her songs are as incisive as ever, as a performer, Phair’s lightened up considerably. Flubbed lyrics in “Big Tall Man” were greeted with a laugh and a shrug. It may take her some time to master performing without a guitar, which she tried on a few songs with mixed results, but at least Phair seems to be having fun on stage these days.
Maybe Phair’s relaxed, playful demeanor had something to do with the support system provided by her excellent band, which was able to recreate the varied textures of Phair’s new album, “whitechocolatespaceegg.” From the lovely, spare syncopation of “Uncle Alvarez” to the wah-wah rock attack of “Supernova,” the four-piece band, augmented by a keyboard player and a backup singer, sailed easily through a grab bag of Phair’s catchiest hits. Props must be given to drummer Ric Menck, formerly of the Velvet Crush, whose decisive beats deftly anchored the band.
But the evening belonged to the girl in the knee boots and demure gray mini-dress who, in a way she never has before, took confident possession of her own music. “Flower,” from “Guyville,” may be the most dissected rock song since “Stairway to Heaven,” but Phair took it back from the rock critics and made it her own again. Suffice to exactly none of the extremely explicit song can be printed in a family newspaper, but Phair sang it without fear or bravado–but of course with that ironic little gleam in her eye.
Near the end of the show, as the chugging beats of “What Makes You Happy” transformed the stage of the Vic into a mini-disco, Phair shimmied to the song and clapped with child-like pleasure as it ended. Maybe rock stars aren’t supposed to applaud themselves–but why not?
By Maureen Ryan, Tribune Staff Writer
Chicago Tribune, October 27, 1998