On paper, a predictable lede for a Julien Baker opinion and/or feature piece would probably sound something like this – “not yet a quarter of a century old, Baker writes with a pain and depth that suggest shared perspectives of someone twice her age on Sprained Ankle.” Or so it would go.
Granted, such canned observations are not wholly inaccurate – Baker is relatively young and does manage to write with a wounded conviction that isn’t even remotely close to being replicated by any other songwriter, regardless of age.
Anyway, perhaps such an observations is simply an attempt to differentiate an angle from seemingly obvious lead ins. When it comes to talking about Baker’s exceptionalism, lazy age-related qualifiers don’t even come remotely close to doing the Memphis native any justice.
While touring alongside baroque pop staples The Decemberists this Spring, it became apparent that Baker has ascended from indie darling to stalwart to staple in her own right. Her discography may be light on releases, but what exists is stunning and (as far as I’m concerned) an indie songwriting standard.
Sprained Ankle was one of (if not) the most surprising releases of 2015, and in the two years of touring and appearances since, Baker has only further solidified her role as one of the best songwriters, period. Hell, it wouldn’t be totally out of the question to state that she’s a once in a generation songwriting talent (she is), but I wouldn’t want to place any undo titles on the seemingly nonchalant Baker.
Point and case – Baker’s opening set at Nashville’s most hallowed (or so the chamber of commerce would tell you) stage, the Ryman.
There are countless buzzy acts that get an early opportunity to open up at the Mother Church. Some have exceeded expectation; some have crashed and burned miserably, and others have made career-defining performances.
Take a wild guess as to which group Julien Baker belongs to.
Baker took the Ryman stage without the slightest bit of flourish or fuss – though the pseudo-hometown crowd did provide some well deserved yelps – and took to playing. As alluded to earlier, there are plenty of opening acts that manage to play exceptionally at the Ryman, but Baker’s performance was one of particular exception.
Baker opened her set with “Sprained Ankle,” the concise ode to chronic suffering and emotional impropriety, and immediately enraptured the audience as a whole. It’s a near master class in songwriting. I mean, how many songwriters do you know that would liken harried breaths with “a lead weight hanging between my lungs?” I can only think of one (you guessed it), Baker.
It makes sense, considering the sparse, yet evocative lyrics of “Sprained Ankle” explore the frailty of intimate emotional relations and the like within a concise two minute and twenty-two second package. The brevity provides an intense glimpse into Baker’s innermost purview and then ends, almost as instantly as it started. In turn, the (in this case, Ryman) audience is clamoring for something to grasp after such acute lyrical intimacy.
Baker’s songs run the gamut in length – the two minute and twenty-two second “Sprained Ankle” to the near six-minute “Go Home” – but within the confines of her live set, there’s virtually no distinction in time.
Each of Baker’s songs are so beguiling and painfully winsome that her live sets almost certainly exist in a vacuum. There is no time when Baker performs – be it with guitar in hand or with some minimal percussion from the likes of Matthew Gilliam – only the marvelous despondence of Baker’s gripping live presence.
It was an idyllic Ryman set – opener or not – as Baker’s songs were met with complete and impenetrable silence, only to be punctuated with an ovation on every song. The distinctly dreamlike scenario was not lost on Baker, who expressed her gratitude toward the venerable audience – “This is a surreal day. I appreciate you coming early and being polite… Thank you for providing me with your time – I do not take it lightly.”
Even in expressing her thanks toward an attentive audience, Baker’s words manage to carry more weight than most.
There are few opening acts that can bring a crowd to virtual and impenetrable silence at the Ryman. Julien Baker is one such opening act. Granted, it may be some time before Nashville has the pleasure of seeing one of music’s finest writers walk the boards of the Mother Church again, but rest assured, when she does, it will be as a headliner.
But for now, we can rest easy knowing that Baker’s opening set at Ryman Auditorium was one of the all-time greats.