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boygenius review, Halifax: These brilliant women should be filling out stadiums

boygenius – the indie supergroup made up of Phoebe Bridgers, Lucy Dacus and Julien Baker – put you through the mill. Jane Graham loves every minute of it.

boygenius: Phoebe Bridgers, Lucy Dacus and Julien Baker

boygenius: Phoebe Bridgers, Lucy Dacus and Julien Baker. Photo: Cuffe and Taylor & The Piece Hall

Halifax’s Piece Hall is quite a venue. When filled with excited music fans, the open-air walled auditorium, built in 1779, has the feel of a bustling Greek temple or an Italian piazza, though its roots are actually grand Georgian. It’s a thrilling place to see live music and boygenius sold out two nights relatively quickly, but I can’t quite understand why they aren’t provoking ticket bunfights for venues more than double its 5,500 capacity.

Phoebe Bridgers alone is verging on superstar status, her scar-ridden torch-songs with acute Swiftian (Taylor, not Jonathan) lyrics about love, trauma, madness and sadness draw a fanatical set of followers that multiplies daily. In 2018 she and two of her closest friends, fellow songstresses Lucy Dacus and Julien Baker, formed boygenius, and the three have continued the project sporadically ever since.

All bring something different to the table; Dacus’ primitive confessionals have a matching primitive aesthetic reminiscent of gorgeous old time lo-fi masters like Bill Callahan’s Smog and Lou Barlow’s Sebadoh. Julian’s angry guitar licks and stabs fire things up, adding an edge to Dacus’ whispered missives and Bridgers’ (comparably) more country/pop sensibilities.

These three brilliant women are in their prime at a time when their combination of the personal and the political should find a cultural context more easily than at any time in history. They should be filling out stadiums.

The crowd at boygenius
The crowd at boygenius. Photo: Cuffe and Taylor & The Piece Hall

The gig begins with dramatic impact. The hi-octane crowd, bouncing like kangaroos on trampolines, are surprised by the sudden projection of a live video of the band backstage, crowded round a single microphone for an intimate a capella Without You Without Them. The quiet attention it demands instantly changes the atmosphere, casting a spell which feels almost mystical.

The release of energy and deafening noise when they leap on stage for a raucous $20 is electrifying, buoyed by the sight of the band crashing around the stage like wildcats, their hair bashing their faces as they mosh like an elegantly besuited AC/DC.

It’s that extreme mixture of fast-paced rock’n’roll physicality – best expressed in belters like $20, Satanist and fan favourite Not Strong Enough – and hushed ballads which marks the live boygenius experience out. It’s a wonderful thing to see three old friends joyfully jumping around a stage, impetuously stage-diving, laughing together, tenderly embracing one another.

Even more compelling though are those moments of excruciating self-exposure in autobiographical tracks like Me and my Dog, and Lucy Dacus’ Please Stay (“You tell me you love me, like it’ll be the last time / Like you’re playing out, the end of a storyline”).

Perhaps the most memorable part of the night comes when Phoebe Bridgers asks the crowd to briefly put away their phones and be wholly present because (I paraphrase) “just because I sing about it doesn’t mean this isn’t a painful thing to revisit”. There follows a very moving version of Letter to an Old Poet (“You think you’re a good person / because you won’t punch me in the stomach”). You could hear a pin drop if anyone dared to burst the collective emotional bubble with such a rude violation.

It’s a strange thing, to be at a live show which makes you feel at times like you’re intruding on a private grief. In this sense boygenius at their most raw have as much in common with artists like Kurt Cobain, Courtney Love, Morrissey, Janis Joplin and even Billie Holiday as with more obvious comparisons Taylor Swift, Joni Mitchell and Fiona Apple.

By the end of the encore (Ketchum ID and Salt in the Wound), we’re left with a oddly delicious masochistic feeling of being put through the mill and loving every minute of it. boygenius do not do average gigs; if you get the chance to see them live don’t be a fool. Just do it.

boygenius headline Connect Festival on 27 August.

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