Review: Phoebe Bridgers Delivers an Energetic, Riveting Performance in Boston

The singer-songwriter performed songs from “Stranger in the Alps” and “Punisher.”

by Jack Hargrove | 10/12/21 2:00am

phoebe-bridgers-graphic
by Michelle Mule / The Dartmouth

Since the release of her critically acclaimed second studio album, “Punisher,” in June 2020, Phoebe Bridgers has had a busy year. From her four Grammy nominations to her controversial Saturday Night Live performance, Bridgers has generated more commercial success than your average quiet, melancholic indie folk singer-songwriter. To top it all off, Bridgers is ending 2021 by going on her first tour since the beginning of the pandemic. On Sept. 27, I had the privilege of attending the second night of her performance at Boston’s Leader Bank Pavilion. While her low-key musical style may not seem particularly well-suited for a venue that seats a few thousand, she gave a generally fantastic performance that captivated the audience.

Right off the bat, the audience’s adoration of Bridgers was readily apparent — especially given the size of the crowd. Many were dressed in Bridgers’ signature skeleton onesie, imitating the ones she dons in all the music videos for “Punisher.” The drink of choice at the venue, Liquid Death –– really just canned water –– accentuated the gothic atmosphere of her fans dressed in black. The girls sitting behind me at the concert were sobbing for most of the evening, continuously requesting the song “Georgia” from Bridgers’ 2017 album, “Stranger in the Alps” –– a request that would later be granted. The crowd engagement contributed to an energetic atmosphere that, while overwhelming at times, enhanced the experience.

Commencing punctually at 8 p.m., opening band MUNA played a 45-minute set to kick off the concert. After signing to Bridgers’ record label Saddest Factory in May, MUNA has toured alongside her. Their lively pop-rock juxtaposed Bridgers’ subtle folk later on in the night. After playing a diverse array of their music, MUNA’s penultimate song was “Silk Chiffon,” released last month in collaboration with Bridgers. To the audience’s raucous applause, Bridgers made her first appearance of the night during this song — unsurprisingly wearing a skeleton top. Overall, MUNA proved an enjoyable opening act.

Finally, around 9:15 p.m, Bridgers began her performance. Much to everyone’s surprise, she walked out to the Black Eyed Peas’ 2009 dance hit, “I Gotta Feeling.” As she later explained, this was a reference to an embarrassing memory in which she had included the song on a mixtape she made for her high school crush. When introducing the song “Kyoto,” Bridgers said, “this song is dedicated to people still in therapy over their parents.” Before performing “Chinese Satellite,” she joked, “Here’s our Coldplay song, except it’s about how God doesn’t exist.” This type of banter and storytelling was prevalent throughout the concert and, for me, was one of the highlights.

Bridgers began her musical set in earnest with the single “Motion Sickness” from “Stranger in the Alps.” One of her catchier songs, this was presumably a tactic to engage the audience, as well as to get the oft-requested song out of the way. After this, it soon became apparent that she planned to play the entirety of “Punisher” in order. Humorously, this included the minute-long ambient opener of the album, “DVD Menu.” Bridgers is still a relatively new artist and has only around twenty solo songs in her repertoire, so I expected her to play nearly all of them. 

However, I was slightly disappointed that she chose to play the songs from “Punisher” strictly in album order rather than mixing it up for the live performance. Thankfully, she inserted songs from her previous album periodically throughout her set — but the predictability of most of the setlist felt a little uninventive.

The best performances of the night were the songs that were played in a different manner than their studio versions. For example, on the album version of “Punisher,” my least favorite track is “Moon Song”; however, her live performance of the song was louder and more upbeat, making it one of my favorite performances of the night. Similarly, her live performance of “Chinese Satellite” brought the orchestral track to a new high. In general, Bridgers’ backing instrumentation at the concert was stellar — particularly the trumpeter who played for most of the songs.

The best stretch of the performance was in the second half, when Bridgers played “Savior Complex,” “Funeral,” “ICU,” “Scott Street” and “Georgia” all in a row. “Savior Complex” and “ICU,” already two of the best songs on “Punisher,” were played to their fullest extent; the energy in the Pavilion during “ICU” — when Bridgers shouted “I hate your mom/I hate it when she opens her mouth/It’s amazing to me how much you can say/When you don’t know what you’re talking about” — was palpable. 

The other three songs in this stretch all came from Bridgers’ debut album. “Funeral” made for the saddest performance of the night, with Bridgers powerfully conveying the crushing sadness of its lyrics. The most interesting of these songs was “Georgia” — the only one which she played on the second night, but not the first. A fan-favorite, the crowd erupted into a mixture of applause and tears when she began to play.

Sadly, not all of the songs were better in performance than in the studio. For the more upbeat songs like “Kyoto,” Bridgers struggled to recreate the same energy she has in her recordings. On the other hand, her quieter songs that she chose not to alter in live performance also suffered. For example, the songs “Punisher” and “Graceland, Too” faltered slightly when played at such a large venue. Quiet songs that were rearranged for performance — like “Halloween” and “Moon Song” — were some of the highlights of the performance.

Unsurprisingly, Bridgers ended her main set with the closing track of “Punisher”: “I Know the End.” While the studio version of the song already contains the creativity of an entire album packed into five minutes, her live performances of it are notoriously raucous and chaotic. This time was no different, and the violent, apocalyptic ending of the song would have made the perfect closer. However, after leaving the stage, Bridgers reappeared for an encore, performing a cover of Bo Burnham’s “That Funny Feeling.” While I think she performs a fine version of this song — and I would have been content with hearing it somewhere in the middle of the set — “I Know the End” would have been a better final note for the concert.

Ultimately, Bridgers put together a great set for a concert of this scope. There were certainly parts that I took issue with — much of the concert ran like a well-oiled machine, with little space for creativity or improvisational elements the audience craves. Additionally, the song order was a little uninventive and could have been more exciting. However, Bridgers found a way to make her quiet indie folk electrify a large crowd just as any stadium rock group can — and her banter and overall stage presence was second to none. I would highly recommend that anyone with the opportunity to see Phoebe Bridgers in concert does not pass it up.

Rating: ★★★★☆

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