By Brooke Bernard
It’s rare to find music you immediately connect to. I seriously disliked most of my favorite artists today the first time I heard them. Phoebe Bridgers was the exception. The first song I ever heard of hers was “Motion Sickness”, and it was the first and only thing I would play in my car everyday for a good two weeks. I started doing a deep-dive into her discography: everything from her solo albums, to her work with Conor Oberst in Better Oblivion Community Center, to her girl-group boygenius. I have a personal connection to every single song Phoebe Bridgers has written because she’s mastered the art of writing with authenticity. With every new song I heard, I would think to myself, “How can someone write something so specific and personal, yet so universal?”.
I discovered her music right at the beginning of the pandemic in 2020, when it was conceivable that live music was a thing of the past. Thankfully, live music did it make its return a little over a year later, and Phoebe Bridgers was the first artist I saw live post-pandemic. At that point in my life, I would have been thankful to see any musician perform live, simply because it had been so long since I had experienced the magic that live performance is. But it was all the more special that it was Phoebe, who came to be my idol and inspiration in my own songwriting in those past few years.
I arrived at The Greek in Berkeley an hour before the show to a sea of concertgoers in a line that probably stretched over a mile. About half the crowd was dressed in their best skeleton-themed attire, paying homage to the cover of Bridgers’ latest album, “Punisher”. I waited for the doors to open, I waited to get past security, and I waited for the opening act to start. I forgot how much waiting there is at concerts. I felt my heart drop with the house lights. That was when the surprise opening act, boygenius member Julien Baker, walked on stage.
Julien came out in her signature acoustic guitar and rainbow strap decorated with block lettering which read “QUEER JOY”. Julien played unaccompanied, without a single backdrop or lighting cue during her set. Her performance was so intimate. I felt as though she was playing in a big, empty room for my ears only. I remember being mesmerized by Julien’s effortless guitar plucking as her voice belted out notes that most singers can only dream about singing. The one song that really stuck out to me was “Happy to be Here”, which Julien said was appropriate because “I am happy to be here”. My favorite lyric reads I heard there’s a fix for everything, then why, then why, then why, then why not me?. Julien is similar to Phoebe in the way that her songs make you go, “Yeah, I know exactly what that feels like”. For her final song, she was joined by Phoebe to perform a cover of Rufus Wainwright’s “One Man Only”, which I can’t remember very well because I was crying really hard. I had never cried at a concert before.
The crying rolled right over into Phoebe’s set, which was kicked off by her and her 6-piece band walking out to “I Gotta Feeling” by the Black Eyed Peas. As the song states, that night was a good night, probably one of the best ones of my life. I squeezed my best friend’s hand tight every time another song started, because I was simply so excited for what I was about to hear. It was hands down the most moving performance I had ever seen, and I definitely wasn’t alone in experiencing that. Throughout the night, I could hear scattered sniffles from the crowd. You have to be a pretty damn good songwriter to move a crowd of over 8,000 people to tears.
The amazing thing about Phoebe is that her lyricism alone would be enough to make her a great artist. She could sing Moon Song over a cat scratching a chalkboard, and I’d probably still cry. But of course, that’s not the case. Phoebe and her band have created beautiful, full symphonies to accompany her heart-wrenching words. The acoustic guitar, violin, banjo, bass, horns, and drums compliment each other in the most seamless way, combining all the best elements of folk, classical, and rock. The Greek was the perfect place to hold a Phoebe Bridgers show. The open space of the venue was made to be filled by each instrument’s unique flavor. Not to mention, Phoebe’s smooth-as-melted-butter voice that so perfectly contrasts with her dark, raspy speaking voice.
There were countless moments in her performance that stuck with me, but the most special one was her performance of the title track, “Punisher”. Phoebe wrote “Punisher” about her parasocial relationship with Elliot Smith, describing her intense love and admiration for the late songwriter without ever meeting him. Punisher has always been a little funny to me because Phoebe’s sentiments about Elliot Smith are exactly how I feel about her, and Phoebe understands this. Throughout the song, she knelt down in front of a few lucky fans and sang lyrics like Here everyone knows you’re the way to my heart. Her performance of Punisher felt like a full circle moment. Phoebe was able to connect with her listeners in the way she wished she could have connected with Elliot.
Phoebe ended her show the same way as her latest album, with “I Know the End”. If there was one song to encapsulate all of Phoebe’s music, it would be this song. It begins with just guitar and vocals, layering in drums and horns throughout, and finally builds up to a screamo, rock ballad that makes 60-something, weirdo men ask “What ever happened to real music?”. I don’t know if you’ve ever screamed at the top of your lungs with a group of 8,000 people, but it’s the best feeling in the entire world. I walked out of that arena feeling lighter than when I came in (and with a setlist!).
It’s hard for me to describe just how much her music means to me. In simple terms, it means the world. I’ve never had a concert going experience quite like this, and I’m not sure if I ever will again. That is, until I see Phoebe in concert again (and again, and again, and again…).