Liz Phair is haunting Chicago — or maybe it’s the other way around. The adulated singer-songwriter, who became a major player in the early ‘90s rock scene with her raw and unapologetic landmark debut “Exile in Guyville,” was so taken back with the album’s anniversary show at the Empty Bottle in June that she finds herself returning to her stomping grounds for a repeat this weekend at Riot Fest.
RIOT FEST When: 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Sept. 14-16 Where: Douglas Park, W. Ogden Ave & S. Sacramento Dr. Tickets: Single day pass: $49.98+; Three-day pass: $129.98 Information: riotfest.org
“Playing that early material and ending the tour with an Empty Bottle show was so emotional for me. I could really feel the passage of time, and at the same time I felt very comfortable,” she recalls in a recent phone call, vocally excited to be talking to her hometown paper. Phair now lives in L.A. but visits several times a year to stay connected and see her son, a student at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. “[Chicago] is where my music was most understood in a certain way, and that show was just so epic because it was the neighborhood that inspired the music, and the context really came back.”
Phair grew up in the North Shore suburbs, but after a time studying visual arts at Ohio’s Oberlin College, she wound up in the artsy townsquare of Wicker Park. It was here in various apartments that she put pen to paper and fingers to guitar strings, developing an onslaught of remarkable material that scoffed at gender politics (“F— and Run”) and exposed uncensored thoughts about sexuality (“Flower”). In a sea of alternative dude bands, she was a lone Gen-X heroine, particularly for women who continue to cite “Exile In Guyville” (a cheeky track-for-track retort to the Rolling Stone’s “Exile on Main Street”) as evergreen source material.
While Phair released a 15th anniversary version of the album with ATO Records in 2008, the latest 25th anniversary collector’s box set, “Girly-Sound to Guyville,” is even more special. To start it’s a release from Matador Records, the indie be-all and her initial record label. Phair credits Matador for the brilliant idea to release her original demos (the mythological Girly-Sound Tapes) properly for the first time after being bootlegged for years.
“I kept asking, ‘How are we going to find those original tapes? I don’t have them.’ I went and looked in my storage lockers, which are full of wall-to-wall Christmas ornaments, which by the way is incredibly embarrassing [that I would] choose to keep those instead of memorabilia from my own career,” she says, laughing.
“But we went to great lengths and there was a network of relationships that allowed this old stuff to be unearthed. Chris Brokaw [an early collaborator from the bands Come and Codeine] went looking, and we reached out to Tae Won Yu [another early compadre from Kicking Giant], who actually had some good original tapes. There were people coming up with photographs at the last minute, including some from Urge Overkill [singer Nash Kato also famously ‘art directed’ “Exile’s” cover art in a photo booth at Rainbo Club]. And it was really like the old days when the scene was so casual and personal. It was a real labor of love and fun to be close to all of them again.”
Of course Phair had her initial hesitation about releasing the Girly-Sound Tapes. “I mean, some are just awful! Like that cow joke [on “California”], that’s embarrassing! But it’s stuff that I never intended anyone to hear. It was something I was doing at Oberlin while drunk, and had no thought whatsoever of a professional music career at that point. In my mind I was a visual artist. I was working for a famous artist as their assistant and had every intention of doing that for the rest of my life,” she admits. “But now I’m even impressed with the songwriting ability at that young age and the guitar work. I had to relearn them for the tour and I was like, ‘Alright, girl, you had something going on.’ ”
With no new material just yet (she declined talking about a reported new album with collaborator Ryan Adams), Phair kicked off a rare nationwide tour, the Amps On The Lawn Tour, in early September. The tagline: “Make America Girly Again.”
“I think we are all popping off with our various emotional moments politically right now, and this tour is mine. I have this strong desire to be visible as someone that lends an opposing picture,” she says, taking a few moments to collect herself.
“What’s happening right now strikes my heart hard. I can’t believe the level of corruption, I can’t believe how seamlessly they have cut through some of the strong seawalls we thought we had,” she continues, the topic also inspiring a new memoir, “Horror Stories,” coming out from Random House next year.
“With Amps on the Lawn, my idea was: Get out, be loud, show yourself, make everybody feel like less afraid to be themselves. … It’s what we all have to do. It’s what I had to do back then, getting up in front of a bunch of men with their arms crossed looking at me skeptically. I was terrified and didn’t know what I was doing but I did it. And I think that’s what the message is now: With whatever you can, find your ability to speak out and say something. Plug the f— in and start playing loudly.”
Here are 9 more acts to see at this weekend’s Riot Fest:
Also from the North Shore suburbs of Chicago, this genre-bending songwriter cites Phair as an influence — along with Missy Elliott, Garbage and Outkast. K.Flay’s sound is satisfyingly indescribable with a mix of alt rock, hip-hop and electro delivered by a bonafide wordsmith.
The Fever 333
With a mix of Rage Against the Machine’s intensity and N.W.A.’s rally cry, this California trio refers to its sets as demonstrations, using the stage to expose the inequities of racism, sexism, and xenophobia — and asking for a revolution.
A welcome Russian interference. The outspoken collective Pussy Riot continues to disrupt Putin’s agenda with exposés of his corruption. Many of the members — all women — have been arrested over the years but it’s deterred them no less, making them some of the truest rockstars of the weekend.
The Jesus Lizard
Heavy-handed noise rock and maniacal performance art are the coup d’etat of this ball-busting quartet, part of Chicago’s indie nexus in the early ‘90s. Though they’ve had considerable stops and starts, it’s just like old times when they get back together — frontman David Yow naked and bloody and the proficient instrumentalists leaving a welcome ringing in your ears.
Jerry Lee Lewis
The Sun Records boogie-woogie king outlived Million Dollar pals Elvis and Johnny Cash, and it will be a wonder to see if the 82-year-old still can keep a quick step on the piano for early rock ‘n’ roll gems like “Great Balls of Fire.”
If you recognize the frontman of this experimental rock troupe, that’s because it’s Julian Casablancas from the Strokes, the 2000-era wonder kids who helped rebirth garage rock. The Voidz take it a step further with psychedelia, disco, new wave and other retro flair performed like classic masters.
With Blink-182 forced to bow out of their headlining spot (drummer Travis Barker unfortunately continues to deal with health issues), Alkaline Trio provides punk kinship. Frontman Matt Skiba double times in both bands but AT is the homegrown Chicago act where he first honed his songwriting chops.
The thrash-punk rebels recently added former Slayer drummer Dave Lombardo its tribe, who revs up a thundering foundation to complement the band’s breakneck speed. Score some apparel and shoes from a new collaboration with Converse for your festival wear, too.
This year marks the 40th anniversary of Blondie’s seminal album “Parallel Lines,” so expect some of the new wave mothership’s greatest hits like “Heart of Glass” and “One Way or Another” that still sound like an echo chamber of the ‘70s New York underground.
Selena Fragassi is a local freelance writer.