Julien Baker performing "Faith Healer"Lyra Christie with permission for Varsity

I’ve never cried at a concert before, but after just two nights of seeing Julien Baker perform at Camden’s Electric Ballroom, I had bawled my eyes out a grand total of five times. The venue’s small size, with a capacity of 1500 people, made it easy to zone out and forget everyone else except Baker herself. It was in a great location for any Cambridge commuter, only two tube stops from King’s Cross, situated on Camden’s bustling high street, surrounded by an Itsu and Pret a Manger: as if I hadn’t even left Cam.

“Baker’s arresting voice swoops over minimalist guitar and piano”

Armed with a matcha latte, I’m ready to join the queue, if anyone can figure out where it’s supposed to be. There’s a lot of awkward shuffling on the first night as we try and manoeuvre around the orange juice stand that’s been set up right outside the venue doors. But once we’re pointed towards a chair across the street as the queue’s designated starting point, all is well. The vibe is relaxed and friendly, and everyone is willing to hold each other’s places.

Julien Baker performing "Sour Breath"Lyra Christie with permission for Varsity

It’s a testament to this atmosphere of happy anticipation that I befriend the Oxford student next to me who tells me with some dread that she’s got to be up at 5.30am the next morning for a rowing event. We’ve both got essays we’re definitely procrastinating with in order to be here: university is temporary, but Julien is forever. We also befriend the middle-aged American man behind us who tells us proudly that he’s been to see Baker 24 times, showing off his matching Julien Baker, Elton John, and Bernie Sanders tattoos. When we get inside, he buys both me and Oxford girl a T-shirt to thank us for keeping him company – it’s a gesture of generosity I’ve never seen replicated at any other gig and leaves me feeling weepy over the power of live music that brings people together before a single note has even played.

“Baker delivers an intimate, haunting performance”

The opening act, Ratboys, are great: clad in a matching pink jumper and beanie, lead singer Julia Steiner cheerfully opens with “Let’s rock!” and absolutely delivers, shredding the guitar as if her life depends on it. They vary their setlist between the two nights, giving returning viewers like myself two totally different shows, making their act feel fresh and genuine. I have a huge grin on my face both times. “Elvis Is in the Freezer”, an ode to a dead pet, is particularly fun and “Peter the Wild Boy”, their closer on the second night, is quietly beautiful. They’re definitely one to watch – picture early Big Thief, but rockier.

Julien Baker performing "Relative Fiction"Lyra Christie with permission for Varsity

Baker’s first two albums, Sprained Ankle and Turn Out the Lights, are notoriously sparse-sounding. Baker’s arresting voice swoops over minimalist guitar and piano. Past tours have kept things similarly quiet with Baker onstage by herself for the duration of the set. 2021’s Little Oblivions, however, has a much busier sound. For the first time, we see Baker using drums, bass, and synths with much grander arrangements. It’s the same melancholy, introspective style that Baker’s always had, but the songs feel bigger – as if the accompanying music is finally able to pack as much force as her lyrics. And as she performs live with a band for the first time, Baker’s performance breathes a new and frantic energy into her songs. The closing tracks “Ziptie” and “Everybody Does”, off her debut album, are particularly elevated by the new full band arrangements. Following the intimate, confessional lyrics with a thundering guitar section seems to give both the audience and the band themselves a moment of crashing catharsis.


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This isn’t to say that Baker doesn’t also know how to manipulate minimalism to devastating effect. The contrast between near silence and deafening noise heightens the impact of both. About halfway through the set, the rest of the band walks off, leaving Baker to play alone and unaccompanied onstage. There’s a palpable sense of intimacy and vulnerability to these songs. Occasionally, Baker pulls the audience back from the brink of total despair with a wry smile or self-reflective comment, like when she plays a wrong note during “Sprained Ankle” and cheerfully starts over. However, the audience is offered no safety net during “Song in E”, a haunting piano ballad that Baker slows down and drags out to its fullest potential. In the gaps between bars, there’s total, enthralled silence from the audience. The roaring applause that comes after the song’s final note has rung out sounds all the louder by contrast. When her band then walks back onstage and launches into a rousing rendition of “Faith Healer”, it honestly feels like I’ve had some sort of religious experience: appropriate for an artist who writes so poignantly about faith. Baker delivers an intimate, haunting performance from an unconventional but arresting rockstar. I can’t wait to see what she does next.