The Rapidian

Review: Julien Baker transfixes audience with quiet, moving songs at Calvin College

Julien Baker performed on Friday, March 31, 2017.
Julien Baker

Julien Baker /Courtesy Jake Cunningham

“Wish I could write songs about anything other than death.”

Julien Baker could not cut a less imposing figure onstage. She is slight and, her between-song patter reveals, a mumbler; she’s twenty-one but looks too young to buy cigarettes. When singing she mostly stares at her feet.

And on March 31st at Calvin College, she completely captured her audience.

“I just let the silence swallow me up.”

I’ve seen respectful concert audiences before, but I don’t ever remember seeing an audience so remarkably still. There was no rustling during the show, no audible coughs; the audience seemed to hold its breath during the songs only to burst into heavy applause afterward, or into laughter at Baker’s dad jokes.

Occasionally, people sang along. “That was so beautiful,” she said at one point. “Thank you for singing with me.”

Throughout, she expressed real appreciation for those in the audience. She may have been alone on the stage, but the crowd was with her in every sense that mattered.

“I know that my body is just dirty clothes

I’m tired of washing my hands, God I wanna go home.”

The music, picked slowly and prettily on a guitar when not coaxed from a piano, never broke a sweat. Baker’s voice, plain and clear, sometimes did; at times it was barely above a whisper, and at times it howled.

The lyrics stuck pretty closely to one territory: the sadness of being here, with all of the imperfections of life and self. Baker is, among other things, gay, a Christian, and a young woman. All those things color her art. But the overall effect of her music was not exposing the particular but revealing the universal.

A serious task. But Baker, who talked earnestly to the crowd about the workings of grace, has no trouble being serious.

“But I think there’s a God and He hears either way.”

She closed with “Rejoice.” The song is partly about the ghosts of friends who died too young - who got to leave before she did (“Cursed your name when I find I’m still awake”). She sang about being angry with God for taking them and not her, and how despite that she still rejoices.

Baker, in her T-shirt and jeans, in her anxiety (she suffers panic attacks, she said), stared out now. The crowd sang along more loudly than they had at any point that night.

“I rejoice. I rejoice. I rejoice.”

Afterward, there was a break, and Baker was to return to the stage for a Q&A. I left, though. I’d already heard what I’d needed.

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