If you’re Gen X and living in Los Angeles, there’s a good chance you were at the Wiltern on Friday night, bathing in nostalgia as Liz Phair performed her seminal 1993 album “Exile in Guyville” in its entirety.
Now that the age range for Gen X is between 41 and 56, it was probably inevitable that we’d succumb to wistfulness. Isn’t ironic, don’tcha think (sorry, Alanis), since we were supposed to be the cynical and disaffected generation. And yet, there was something deeply bonding for the audience at the Wiltern, as we all traveled back in time, cynicism-free, for an hour and a half.
“It has been 30 years — more, actually — since I sat in my bedroom with my TASCAM 4-track, and I recorded a lot of these songs on cassette,” a genuinely grateful Phair told the crowd. “I used to go out to parties and if I just felt bad or something or if I was pissed off, I would come home and I would write a song. And look at this, 30 years later!”
As she played the entirety of “Guyville,” at first it felt like Phair was performing a greatest hits medley. But it only seemed that way, because most of us in the audience had listened to her debut album so much over these three decades that every song was a familiar smash to our ears.
“Welcome to Guyville,” she told the crowd. “It’s been a while.”
Oh, you don’t need to remind us. We’re all a little grayer. As I overheard someone a few rows in front of me talk about how he graduated from college in 1996 (a year after me), my mind went to my own memories from back then — and in particular, how I was living in Chicagoland right when Phair first hit it big. That was quite a place and time to be keeping tabs of the music scene, as Wicker Park began to rival Seattle as the capital of Gen X. Bands like Smashing Pumpkins and Urge Overkill were exploding, and clubs like the Metro and Lounge Ax were ground zero for the second wave of 1990s alternative (and dare I say it, “grunge”).
You’d pick up the Chicago Reader to get a sense of who to pay attention to — and in 1993, the free weekly couldn’t stop writing about Liz Phair. Radio wouldn’t play “Fuck and Run,” arguably the best track on the album, but at least locally, Q101 would send the single “Never Said” into heavy rotation. It’s impossible to understate what a big deal “Exile in Guyville” was in Chicago in 1993. (Or the backlash that came from indie snobs… I don’t remember us playing any Liz Phair at my college radio station, as “Guyville” had become to mainstream in their eyes. And well, the FCC would have prevented me from sneaking “Fuck and Run” onto the airwaves.)
But again, it’s now been 30 years, and it’s hard to remember those college “this isn’t indie enough” arguments. Instead, listening to “Exile in Guyville” now simply reminds me what a great record it was, both at the time and now. Powerful and raw, yet still accessible. The kind of album that inspires a new generation of musicians to tell their story.
“Just getting back to this album, it made me think about stuff and how hard you fight when you’re young to make your dreams come true,” Phair told the audience on Friday. “And how you struggle in darkness and uncertainty and rejection. And you go out and get involved in crazy shit looking for love. And you live and you die by the social scene. And all you have at that point is each other. And then you move beyond it and you get some security and acceptance. And you realize that those are some of the best times of your life.”
Among other highlights at the show, the background visuals curated by Natalie Frank were compelling but didn’t overshadow Phair. And although his visit was too short, Dave Pirner was another nice nostalgic touch — as, of course, he grooved on guitar in the background as Phair sang her song “Go West,” which name checks the Soul Asylum singer. (“Like Pirner tells me on the radio, says ‘Take it from someone who’s been there before, you go west, young man.’” — And yes, Pirner took the mic and sang that line himself.)
“I was listening to Soul Asylum a lot when I was recording this album,” Phair said as she introduced Pirner to the stage. It was truly 1993 all over again — for some reason, there were a shocking few phones in the air, grabbing video. This was a true Gen X crowd taking in the moment.
After performing “Guyville” in its entirety, Phair took a break and then played a few of her recognizable non-“Guyville” tracks as an encore (although skipping some of her biggest, opting not to perform “Whip-Smart” or “Extraordinary”).
Having just attended another one of these nostalgia concerts recently (Death Cab for Cutie and The Postal Service celebrating the 20th anniversary of their albums “Transatlanticism” and “Give Up,” respectively), it’s clear I’m a sucker for these revivals. And I’m not the only one. Sorry to say it, but the disaffected Gen Xers of the 1990s are the very affected Gen Xers of the 2020s.
Maybe we’re too old now to “Fuck and Run” (Gen X: Now the “Netflix and Nap” crowd). A friend who I won’t embarrass brought her son to the show, leading to what sounded like a few blush-worthy moments. But I stand by my assertion: That song is still a bop. And I’m glad Liz Phair is still proving it, 30 years later.
(Photo: Liz Phair on stage in 2019.)
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