The Heights Theater
April 27, 2019
Liz Phair seemed fascinated by the idea of a ghost rumored to haunt The Heights Theater, the site of her Houston stop last night. She said she’d heard the phantom’s name was Henry (yes, the same name as a certain bartending friend Phair’s lucky to know).
Phair likes the spooky stuff. She’s on record about her preoccupation with the supernatural, once talked about the paranormal world at length on Joe Rogan’s podcast and has written a soon-to-be-released memoir titled Horror Stories. So, she did her best to summon Henry with some enticing songs, a flattering leopard-print dress and a little flirting. Unable to scare up a sign from the specter, she said, “Yep, Henry, you missed your chance. We’re dating other people now.”
The near-capacity crowd played along, but seemed undaunted by the idea of a wraith among them.
“You guys don’t find the ghost thing interesting at all?” Phair asked. “Is that not a Texas thing?”
It’s true, the gathered seemed much less interested in an apparition than an in-the-flesh Liz Phair, who was completing a swing through Texas on her latest tour. Henry may have had a lukewarm reaction, but for Phair the audience cheered enthusiastically and sang heartily to most of the tunes in a 17-song set. Most of the list was drawn from Exile In Guyville, her 1993 debut album which is perennially listed among the best rock albums of all time and was a touchstone record in the indie rock world. Sans a full band, she and sidekick guitarist Max Bernstein worked through the set at a leisurely, comfortable pace.
Seemingly dead and buried as poor old Henry was any sign of Phair’s one-time, self-professed stage fright, a phenomenon she said plagued her especially in her early days. She talked with the crowd extensively, taking time between songs to tell stories and offer tidbits from her day.
“Our Uber today was a pickup truck. It was so rad,” she said to big laughs. “Dodge Ram. And Max was looking at his guitar like, ‘Oh well, I guess I’ll chunk it in the back.’ It was kind of awesome. We knew it was going to be a good show at that point.”
Phair’s premonition from a Dodge Ram proved correct. For one, she was playing a venue with incredible acoustics. She sounded fantastic on every song. The room was the right size and filled out with fans who knew the catalog. One told Phair, who was departing the stage at the time, that she’d waited 27 years to see her live and was thanked with a handshake from the stage. Phair even offered fans an idea on how to be spotted by their favorite performers at a concert.
“If you go to a show and you want to be noticed, wear white. Seriously, that’s all we can see from the stage,” she said. “I once got Paul Simon, like, into me for a whole half of a concert and I was pretty far back, and I could tell. Swear to God. Someone’s going to tag him on social media, he’ll be like, ‘I don’t know what you’re talking about.’ I for sure had him and my friends were like, ‘Ssh, ssh, ssh,...’ they’re like talking to me and I’m like, ‘No, I’ve got this.’ At the end I was like, ‘Ah, fuck it.’ We left early.’”
We saw no one leaving Phair’s show early last night. From the opener, “Supernova” to the closing pair of Guyville tracks, “Fuck and Run” and “Divorce Song,” the fans were fully engaged. Phair took notice, too. Early on she admitted to the crowd, “We are really enjoying our time here in Texas. It has not been easy for me to win you guys over but I feel like I’m making headway.”
By the time she got to “Extraordinary,” the twelfth song of the set, she said, “I feel like this is a real turning point in our relationship, Texas. I mean there’s a lot about me that’s sort of Texas-y. I’m like 5’2 and I think that I’m like 6’10. I keep my stirrups low. Or, do we go high?”
High, of course, like the spirits of the audience. As she brought the night to an end, she thanked those who were in attendance for being there all along. Everyone but Henry the Ghost, that is. The bastard never showed despite Phair’s game efforts.
“Fans are everything. Literally, when I was going up against titans in the industry and I was having problems, it was the fans. Fans are why I have a career. They know the good stuff from the bad stuff,…you’re the wind beneath my wings,” she said to a round of laughter, then finished it with the “Texas-y,” quip, “You’re the flatbed to my pickup truck.”
The Opener: Houston’s own Sara Van Buskirk was an inspired choice for show opener. Her elevated lyrics and cool folk style would have once been right at home at Lilith Fair, one of Phair’s career milestones. Anyone who arrived early was treated to songs like “Tennessee Whisky,” (not a Chris Stapleton cover but Van Buskirk’s own brewing) from her album The Place Where You Are.
Van Buskirk said the gig was the second of the day and fourth of the week for her and she sounded powerful. Fans must have taken notice because she said the work felt, “really good. Like when you work out. Anybody know what that feels like?”
Yeah, you come out feeling stronger, and Van Buskirk's voice proved the point. On her way out, she thanked Phair for paving the way for artists like herself.
Personal Bias: Way back when I thought I was going to be the next Lester Bangs, I read all the rock rags to stay up to date on the artists who were changing music, so Liz Phair was on my radar pretty early. She’s never fallen off. Whether the songs were from Guyville, or Whip-Smart and Whitechocolatespaceegg (my two favorites – I adore “Nashville” from the former and my daughter probably first attempted to strum a guitar mimicking Phair’s “Perfect World” from the latter) or her later, more commercially-popular albums, I’ve been a dedicated fan. That makes me a bit biased (cue scene with Lester Bangs rolling over in grave) but Liz sounded great and I heard every song I wanted to hear last night (except for “Nashville” and “Perfect World”).
The Crowd: I didn’t realize I knew so many Liz Phair fans. Hello to Sam and Jocie, who were in the crowd along with bunches of us who were on hand to give Phair some Texas love. Phair said she was happy to hear a crowd in an intimate setting singing the songs along with her and the crowd complied, song after song. Pretty great night.
Random Notebook Dump: Thanks to Julai and Sara, who helped me wind down post-show with weird, entertaining tales from the Heights Theater smoking section, which is actually an alleyway next to the venue. Getting to meet new, creative, intriguing people is the best part of going to any show, even one featuring Liz Phair. Thanks to them both for the impromptu but sincere induction into their ultra-exclusive "Swashbuckling Great People’s Club."
Liz Phair Set List
Explain It To Me
Help Me Mary
Ant in Alaska
Shitloads of Money
Soap Star Joe
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Why Can’t I?
Fuck and Run