Standing in St Luke’s in the Calton area of Glasgow’s east end, you could easily make the case for the converted church being the most seductive live venue in Scotland. Tonight, with the stage bathed in indigo and magenta light and fairy lights strung low across the wood panelled balcony, there is an almost reverential air and a real expectation amongst the assembled congregation.
Twenty two year old Memphis “slowcore” exponent Julien Baker is on the final stretch of a three week European tour before jetting back home for a slew of dates with her star studded supergroup boygenius, featuring indie-folk contemporaries Lucy Dacus and Phoebe Bridgers.
Supporting Baker on this tour is Staten Island’s Becca Mancari, already a well-established artist, and she enjoys a short set of country/ fuzz fusion which carries with it a strong personal belief in powerful women and promoting social change.
This message of self-belief and speaking out when trouble finds you proves to be a common theme as both women artfully weave songs of heartbreak and the struggle to summon renewed hope.
Baker cuts a diminutive, almost adolescent figure below the span of the venue’s towering organ pipes, yet, as she teases out the first finger picked chords of Sprained Ankle (the title track from her debut record) and gradually introduces the audience to her hugely powerful vocals, there is no doubt that she has ability and presence in plentiful measure.
Tonight’s set is neatly divided between her 2015 debut and 2017’s follow up Turn Out The Lights and she chides the crowd for their exuberance at the echo-drenched break up hymn Something and gossamer light story of unrequited love Blacktop. The soaring, dark heart of Shadowboxing swirls amongst every nook of the old building, soaking into a warmly receptive audience.
The thing that really impresses is her immersive approach to performance. Baker skilfully uses her voice at distance from the microphone and fills up the entirety of her performance space. There’s also a genuine commitment to creating emotional heart onstage, her dark eyes screwed shut and teeth clenched or abruptly ending songs with a contemptuous flick of her head.
Moving onto piano and welcoming a violinist into the fold, Baker ratchets up the communal fervour, shaking out the deeply personal Hurt Less and the exultant strain of Televangelist. Looking around, you sense the audience and performer are enveloped in a kind of mutual safety blanket – she holds them, and they hold her. The only downside to this arrangement is the relentless emotional tug of war can ask too much of each party, straying too far into the realms of the overwrought.
Curiously, she loses focus during the final two songs of the evening and resorts to forcefully admonishing herself with hair pulling, little rabbit punches to the back of her head, and even sinking her teeth into her fist before the scrupulously constructed finale Turn Out The Lights. In the end, she turns unsteadily from the stage and is gone without a backwards look.
Julien Baker has undeniable skill and talent and an unnerving way of commanding an audience with just her voice and a guitar. As her back catalogue grows, she would benefit from giving herself and her audience space to draw breath with moments of a lighter note. boygenius is sure to give her plenty to work with.