Between her self-deprecating remarks and the little bouts of gratitude she offered to the Newport Music Hall crowd on Tuesday night in Columbus, Julien Baker froze time.
Over 20 songs had been played, too many tears had been ousted and one Tennessee native had given all of herself to fans so mesmerized, so unaware of the beauty unfolding right in front of them. She spent the eve of her birthday giving all of herself to a group of strangers.
But time soared by, and it seemed like it ended just as it was getting started. No one was ready to leave.
A highlight of the night was when she played “Blacktop,” the opener to her debut album, Sprained Ankle, thanks to a request from one lucky fan with a poster. Before starting, she warned the crowd she’s sorry if she forgets what she’s doing because she hasn’t played the track in a hot minute. She didn’t skip a beat, though. It was just her, her subtly plucked guitar strings, a batch of melancholy and the world.
She had no problem playing other oldies, too, diving more into Sprained Ankle while also sprinkling in some gems from her sophomore effort, Turn Out the Lights. Most of the night, rightfully so, was focused on Little Oblivions, her latest project that grabs listeners by the throat and never really lets go.
“Ringside,” a track from Little Oblivions that her infectiously energetic opener, Thao, returned for, was a spectacle. After Baker screamed to the heavens for another chance of redeeming herself for her poor actions, Thao absolutely shredded her guitar, and Baker couldn’t help but watch in amazement and smile from ear to ear.
Baker constantly played around with loop pedals. At one point, as she was tuning her guitar and trying to start overdubbing a song, she said, “That was way too much. You probably thought you’d never hear me say that,” quipping at her tendency to be immensely vulnerable in her work. This was the darkest she got outside of her songs but not the last time she joked.
Before the last moments of her set, she said she’d be out for an encore, poking fun at the tradition of artists only returning for an encore after the audience desperately pleads. Baker was only away for maybe 20 seconds before happily waltzing out again.
During the encore, which consisted of all oldies — “Something,” “Good News” and “Appointments” — she told the crowd she liked when they sang with her, but she was OK if they weren’t comfortable with that or simply didn’t know the songs. She was just happy to be there with them. Before that, the only voice filling the walls was her own, but that was mostly due to the fact that she was transfixing the venue. Her magical touch was enough that everyone wanted to keep their voices to themselves and watch the master at work.
As soon as she said she’d be glad to hear people sing back, though, the room had never been louder. Hoards of voices made way, happy to be with her, too.
To say her performance did justice to her records is an understatement. She annihilated them. She spun on stage and whipped around her guitar like it was the last performance she’d ever give; she held out notes probably longer than it took to record them; she painted a cohesive, realistic picture of a struggling life within a couple hours.
The best part may be that Baker will never quit challenging herself, and she’ll put just as much heart into each and every subsequent performance, even though the autobiographical lyrics she sings break her.