Touring for one of the best albums of 2017, the 40-minute exorcism of alcoholism, depression, and heartbreak that is Turn Out the Lights, the Tennessee-based singer-songwriter Julien Baker came to Glasgow’s Saint Luke’s on Tuesday night (25 September). The former St Luke’s & St Andrew’s Church of Scotland, the third oldest church in Glasgow, was reopened as a live venue in 2015 and provided an eerily numinous backdrop to Baker’s intimate set with its massive pipe organ lit in red neon lights directly behind the stage – “the first church I’ve ever seen with Jack Daniel’s merchandise inside”, as the singer put it.
She was supported by Becca Mancari, whose songs are a kind of middle-of-the-road Americana on record, but sound much more akin to Baker’s visceral acoustic ballads in a live setting; so much so that a latecomer to the show could be forgiven for confusing the beanied young woman strumming sad songs on her guitar for Baker herself. For as clear as it seems as to why Baker chose Mancari to support her on her European tour, the two singers are evidently distinct in their respective styles. Mancari’s music is perhaps best described as vaguely downcast easy listening for the later, tired stages of a road trip, and her stage presence is playful, joking with her guitarist and referring to the three weeks she has been touring with Baker as “forever” with charming giddiness.
Baker opens her set with Sprained Ankle, a song in which she likens her feelings of inadequacy to being a an injured marathon runner, and that’s pretty much the mood she settles into for the rest of the show. She is all by herself, equipped with nothing but a guitar and a loop pedal, and prefers to let her music speak for her. For Everybody Does, probably the closest she’s come to writing a folk standard, Baker tells her audience that they can sing along if they feel like it, an invitation that is mostly ignored – not for lack of enthusiasm, but because it feels downright rude to take the focus away from Baker herself during her devastatingly personal performance. When she does talk between songs to explain the mental states she was in when composing, it feels less like a singer addressing a crowd than a close friend pouring their heart out to you at 3 in the morning – only that “you” is a collective “you” that also includes 200 strangers.
The venue and the respectful audience do their part, but it’s largely due to Baker herself that her songs manage to retain the brittle intimacy they have on record when performed live. The 22-year-old (turning 23 on Saturday) sings mainly with closed eyes, grimacing with fervour when striking the most powerful chords and stretching her mouth far past the medically recommended limit to belt out the cathartic choruses of songs like Rejoice, Happy to Be Here, and Turn Out the Lights. Baker’s set is surprisingly long, and to bypass the sense of monotony that an hour and a half of slow guitar songs is liable to induce, she brings out violinist Camille Faulkner for an overwhelmingly beautiful rendition of Shadowboxing. Still accompanied by Faulkner, Baker herself also switches from guitar to piano midway through the concert to perform Televangelist, Everything That Helps You Sleep, and Hurt Less, three lethargic songs even by Baker’s slowcore standards, at which point the show comes dangerously close to the point of somnolence.
In the end, Baker comes full circle for the two singles Appointments and Turn Out the Lights, performed again by just herself on her guitar. “Maybe it’s all gonna turn out all right / Oh, I know that it’s not, but I have to believe that it is”, she sings with quiet force, and after the last chord has died away, she takes a second to silently appreciate the audience’s ovation before briefly holding up one hand as a sign of thanks, turning about, and walking off stage. There’s no encore. Instead, Migos’s Motorsport starts playing from the speakers. Maybe go for the indie rock playlist next time instead, Saint Luke’s.