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Exile in Maxwell’s: Liz Phair is back

Photo Credit: Cliffview Pilot
Photo Credit: Cliffview Pilot
Photo Credit: Cliffview Pilot
Photo Credit: Cliffview Pilot

IN TUNE : Liz Phair served notice at Maxwell’s that she’s doing it her way in 2011, and could well end up the hottest rock and roll chick of the decade. In the first of a short series of East Coast warm-ups for a much-larger tour with her “Guyville” trio, indie rock’s signature wet dream blazed through a steamy, sweaty “best of” power-pop performance built on her three tenets of faith: love, sex and rock-and-roll.

Liz Phair
ALL PHOTOS : CLIFFVIEWPILOT.COM
(No re-use without permission)

Phair is back in a big way: lean, tight, and lusty, with a red-hot backing band that can propel her through the paces.

Her new album “Funstyle” — released on her website in July — pretty much picks up where Phair’s fans and critics hopped off.

Only this time she‘s less Lucinda Williams’s slutty sister and more Joan Jett’s balls-to-the-wall hetero pal.

In fact, there’s a certain humility to her act now, a damned-glad-to-be-here connection that can’t be faked. She’s vulnerable without being weak, frank without sacrificing control. What you see is what you get.

It’s the ones who don’t try to turn you on who can often be the most gratifying. And when it comes to Phair, 43, there’s simply no getting around it: For most guys, she’s a wristful.

It’s not just the blond mane, the early Meg Ryan gorgeousness, the dog collar or the juicy, spaghetti strapped cheesecloth of a top. Simply put: No one’s rocked this many hooks and jabs — or changed guitars as many times — since Chrissie Hynde. And when you’re talking rock and roll, MILF material isn’t all that easy to come by (no pun intended).


I couldn’t help wonder: Would getting dumped by two labels — and deposited the past five years in a Springsteenesque post-“Born to Run” record-making exile — force Phair further into obscurity? Or would it trick her into trying to replicate the distaff Stones-cum-psychedelia sound that made “Exile in Guyville” such a keeper?

Even better, would it free her to let loose?

Put it this way: Although it wasn’t exactly the Elvis comeback special, the packed-tight Hoboken show was nearly as surprising and satisfying — one of the year‘s best rock-and-roll performances on either side of the Hudson.

If you’re lucky enough to catch Phair and her band at the Bowery Ballroom TONIGHT, in Williamsburg on Jan. 26, or on the rebound sometime next year, be sure to strap yourself in. If the Maxwell’s show was an indicator, this tour will be a thrill ride — loud, hard and fast.

In a sense, that’s the beauty of the financial times we’re in. You can blow a wad on a tired old band or invest a fraction of that in genuine talent. The return is tremendous. And don’t think Phair isn’t aware of the beauty of “seeding” her music among a small group of devotees who — like me — will spread the word faster, and with more sincerity, than any record company out to score an instant Top 10 hit.

Don’t be surprised if Phair breaks into rap — again. Her teenaged son’s favorite music has obviously caught his mom’s ear, and Phair has long had a predilection for the form. But don’t be fooled, either: Although “Funstyle” explores the outer reaches of chick-lit eclecticism, Phair has never been more melodic and muscular onstage. “Exile on Main Street”? More like “Some Girls.”

It certainly isn’t “Guyville 2.” The tunes remain more than a little spacey, but they’re still catchy. While waiting to be freed from her Capitol Records contract, she composed award-winning TV scores — practicing the type of discipline that cannot indulge the off-the-wall signatures for which Phair has long had a flair. She also paid close attention to the Internet, and knows that it’s far better to slap on an unfinished product than to give people reason to forget about you by endlessly noodling over loops and sequencing.

With help from Dave Matthews, as well as longtime songwriting partners Evan Frankfort and Marc “Doc” Dauer, Phair assembled “Funstyle” the past two years.

The newer tunes fit perfectly with the more familiar “Mesmerizing” (which was), “Table For One,” “Extraordinary“ (from an eponymously named 2005 album some diehards would sooner forget), and whitechocolatespaceegg ’s “Polyester Bride,” “Perfect World,” “Girl’s Room” and the hard-rocking “Johnny Feelgood” (“All right, bitch: Here you go,” Phair said, laughing, satisfying a loyalist who kept calling out the request throughout the brisk, 70-minute set).

Still, the new stuff isn’t as raw as “And He Slayed Me,” “Soap Star Joe” or the night‘s biggest sing-along, “Divorce Song” — all of which exploded from the stage. And they weren’t anywhere near as tender and heartfelt as “F*** and Run.” Then again, what is?

No matter. The power and majesty of Phair’s Replacements/Husker Du accessibility Sunday night at Maxwell’s — the first of her East Coast dates — hit that spot that only true rock and roll can. She served notice right from the jump, opening with “Supernova” from Whip-Smart . When it was finally time to bring the boil down to a simmer after several blistering songs in a row, she chose the bittersweet “Nashville.”

And even though Phair promised to bring someone up for “Flower” later in the show, she never got there. She was too busy rockin’ out.

At one point, I even found myself taking a deep breath and counting backward from 10.

In a long line of zeros, I may have found The One.

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