By Kayleigh Hughes, special to the American-Statesman
Early on in her set at the Mohawk on Thursday night, Liz Phair took a moment to grin at the audience and observe, “I think I see the first Liz Phair mosh pit out there.”
It was a perfect way of summing up the energy that the lovestruck audience sent Phair and her band from the moments the lights dimmed until the last raucous cymbal clash of their encore. The sold-out Sept. 27 show was packed with Phair die-hards, young and old, who knew all the lyrics to every song and vibrated with energy.
Phair and her band more than gave that energy back. After an intimate, limited-date tour earlier in the year in which Phair and sole guitar accompanist Connor Sullivan played groundbreaking songs from the early demo tapes she recorded as Girly Sound, the rock ’n’ roll queen is now midway through a string of dates with a full band that brings her sharp songwriting to life in a totally different way.
In a savvy move to differentiate the rock-show tone of the current tour from the more stripped-down summer anniversary shows, Phair kicked off her set with the propulsive track “Supernova” from “Whip-Smart,” the follow-up to her iconic debut, “Exile in Guyville.” In fact, Phair and her band blasted thrillingly through five songs from various eras of her career (and three guitars) before giving the crowd a track from “Guyville,” a driving, heavy version of “Never Said.” The run of tracks was a welcome reminder in the midst of the “Guyville” anniversary conversations that Phair has been pushing her sound forward and mixing rock and pop subgenres for the past 25 years, while always retaining her wit, intellect and curiosity as a songwriter.
Throughout the night, she hit on all the favorites, from swooning pop hit “Why Can’t I” to ferocious anthems such as “6’1”” and “Polyester Bride” to the beloved encore necessity “Divorce Song.” She gave them all rich, full arrangements, resulting in a set that felt cohesive and served as a reminder that Phair is a veteran, an expert and a true one-of-a-kind artist. (At a certain point, I gave up counting the number of perfectly timed guitar changes. Phair has a collection that makes my heart flutter.)
During the show, Phair also made a point of acknowledging the killer set by opening act Speedy Ortiz, shining a well-deserved light on the feminist indie-grunge-rock band, who delivered an incredibly tight, vibrant, righteously furious performance earlier in the evening. Between the shredding and the hooks, lead singer Sadie Dupuis urged the audience to vote multiple times and allowed sexual assault victims like herself and anyone feeling particularly enraged with the news cycle a chance to take a giant, cathartic scream with her.
Phair brought her own sense of catharsis to the rest of the night, but in a different way: through joy and buoyancy. So much of her music serves as searing indictments of patriarchy and raw explorations of womanhood, and she and her band managed to channel that into an almost blissful musical energy, allowing the pleasure of performing together and connecting with an adoring audience to be its own hard-won and enjoyed victory.