Well before the Festival Field gates opened at roughly 5:30 p.m. on Saturday, a line of Phoebe Bridgers fans curled around Surly Brewing Company.
The overwhelmingly zoomer- and millennial-looking crowd had dressed in their versions of Bridgers signifiers: black shirts and sweatpants emblazoned with rib cages and femurs; black brimmed hats; Doc Martens; and at least one mom-style Halloween sweater vest. Several sported white-blonde dye jobs, like a line in Punisher’s title track—“copycat killer with a chemical cut.”
Punisher is, of course, Bridgers’ sophomore solo album. It came out early in the pandemic, a haunted house of an indie-folk record—if that house were a homey suburban bungalow haunted by soft-spoken ghosts who just want to love you.
Released in June 2020, Punisher broke Bridgers into the mainstream (Grammy-nominated, critically hailed). She had built up a following as part of two supergroups following her more privately adored solo debut, 2017’s Stranger in the Alps. A California native who grew up listening to Laurel Canyon’s singer-songwriters before dialing into the emo scene, Bridgers is known for stabbingly confessional, pristinely specific lyrics, along with a kid-on-Halloween aesthetic. On Punisher’s album cover, she wears a skeleton onesie, alone and moony in a craggy desert. Surly Festival Field, where she performed in Minneapolis, fits on the same mood board: a shaggy spit of industrial wasteland near graffiti-tagged grain elevators and the “Witch’s Hat” tower of Bob Dylan lore.
Originally, Bridgers was to play two shows at St. Paul’s Palace Theatre. But things changed. Those shows merged into a single concert at Surly Festival Field after Bridgers announced on Twitter that her tour would make only outdoor stops. Masks? Mandated, and staffers would check proof of COVID-19 vaccination at the gates. “Let’s try this again…,” she said in a tweet.
Things got more complicated from there. Surly Festival Field is not, by some accounts, a suitable location at all. Surly Brewing Company’s gently rolling backyard has become a buzzy outdoor venue since debuting in 2016, booked in partnership with First Avenue. (Ween and Patti Smith played there last month.) But recent allegations of union busting at Surly spawned some sour tweets. “phoebe bridgers playing at surly is going to be my villain origin story,” read one.
It was a big turnout nonetheless, enough for a communal concert feel. Any grievances appeared to remain online.
And you couldn’t have asked for a more bewitching night. Temps hovered around 70, a cloudy scrim slid over the sky. People kind of, sort of, kept their masks on. (“Phoebe wants you to wear a mask,” said the signs out front.) Really, it was a Minnesota State Fair situation: food trucks, tents selling beer, and a few people drinking, naked-faced, in the loose mosh around the stage. This cognitive dissonance feels familiar by now, barely worth noting.
But unintended resonances of “these times” did take shape throughout Bridgers’ professionally executed, giddily received performance. In brief twinges, the night could feel somewhat mid-apocalyptic, like the most estranged parts of Punisher.
So, How Was It?
Bridgers took the stage about a quarter past 8 p.m. Like a basketball team jogging onto the court, her five-piece band assumed positions to “I Gotta Feeling” by the Black Eyed Peas—what felt like light trolling from an artist pegged as melancholic.
“Well, thanks for showing up,” she deadpanned after “Garden Song” a few tracks in. This is the wry shrug of her Twitter self, although she may have also been acknowledging the venue change and attendee requirements (plus First Avenue’s late decision to lower the age limit from 18-plus to 12-plus).
The set had sprinkles of Stranger in the Alps (“Motion Sickness,” “Scott Street,” “Smoke Signals”). Otherwise, she shot through Punisher in album order. A big-screen pop-up book flipped through Edward Gorey-esque illustrations behind the band, who wore glow-in-the-dark skeleton getups. Vignettes matched lyrics: a placid Pasadena bridge (“Garden Song”), a boozy ghost (“Halloween”), a house on fire (“I Know the End”).
Spooky in spirit but folksy in sound, the midnight tone of Bridgers’ music struck one reviewer of her Pitchfork Music Festival concert the previous night as somber for the festival circuit. But at Surly, Bridgers fed her crowd. They readily cheered, sang along. Some at the front messily requested “Georgia,” and Bridgers obliged after protesting that she wrote the song at 16. After a flawless performance: “I literally blacked out that whole time.”
Her initial coolness (upon taking the stage: “’Sup”) thawed in affectionate chunks. Bridgers’ songs have a way with fraught feelings. Often skinned to an aching tenderness, they can nonetheless feel like they were made for coupled swaying.
In that sense of shared vulnerability, the past year (plus however many months) showed up in subtle ways. Like when an iffy-during-a-pandemic line from “Moon Song” coaxed attendees’ voices into sudden, dreamy unison: “You couldn’t have/Stuck your tongue down the throat of somebody/Who loves you more.”
Standout track “Halloween” rippled with double meaning: “But I can count on you to tell me the truth/When you’re wearing a mask.” Toward the end of that song, Bridgers touched foreheads with her guitarist. “I’ll be whatever you want,” they softly professed.
The crowd had made a choice. Lizzo was playing at Treasure Island that night, the Jonas Brothers at Mystic Lake. “It’s like a Jonas Brothers concert but indie rock,” Bridgers said at one point, telling us about the time she saw them open for Miley Cyrus in 2008.
Later, Bridgers called Minneapolis “one of my favorite places to play in the world.” She named First Avenue, where she played in 2019 as part of her duo with Conor Oberst, Better Oblivion Community Center. As if by way of explanation, she then covered the Replacements. “Of course I picked the saddest Replacements song,” she said, a little self-skewering, before singing “Here Comes a Regular.” “They have a lot of fun a lot of the time, but this isn’t that.”
For the closer, there was no splintered guitar, as on SNL. But the ending of “I Know the End” was as clawing and cathartic as fans could want after listening to the album on repeat through quarantine.
She doused that song’s screaming apocalypse in an encore: a cover of the droll “That Funny Feeling” from Bo Burnham’s Netflix special Bo Burnham: Inside. Like Bridgers’ own work, its lyrics are savage yet moving. Social oddities and social tragedies funnel into a nearly nihilistic “We Didn’t Start the Fire” stream of witty pathos.
Before the encore, Bridgers offered gratitude: “I can’t thank you all enough for being safe and respectful…”But the moment that most closely summed up the night came during “Smoke Signals,” about halfway through the set.
The person in front of me cupped her hands over her mask as the opening chords rang out. The song visualizes lonesome yearning as hopeful smoke signals. Midway, Bridgers stopped. “Hold on.” She swung guitar to hip, all business. “Safe?” A few lights flung into the crowd. Some shouts came from the back. “Medic?” No, it seemed fine. There was uneasy laughter, then cheering, as Bridgers tossed a thumbs-up, game although seemingly a little weary, like a mom trying to restart the fun. She stepped back a verse and forged ahead: “I want to live at the Holiday Inn/Where somebody else makes the bed.”
Shoutout to the opener:
MUNA gave the night a buoyant start. The recent signees to Bridgers’ new label, Saddest Factory, just collaborated with Bridgers on the pastel-coated queer anthem “Silk Chiffon,” and their set opener “Number One Fan” happens to have accompanied many an aimless at-home workout for me during lockdown.
Most Minnesota moment:
Bridgers: “You guys are so nice.”
Guy behind me, shouting: “Damn right we are!”