Pop concerts can be occasions for communal catharsis even under mundane circumstances. Liz Phair's show at Union Transfer on Friday had something extra going for it.
For starters, the tour, which pledges to "Make America Girly Again," is in part a celebration of the 25th anniversary of the release of Phair's deservedly revered debut album, Exile in Guyville.
That fabulous and feminist 20-song collection — commemorated in the terrific new Girly-Sound to Guyville box set — was a watershed moment in indie rock whose impact is still being felt. That was made clear by an intergenerational crowd of women singing along to every word and dudes who couldn't stop themselves from hollering, "I love you, Liz!"
Then there's the matter of timing. Friday's show fronted by two tough-minded women — opening act Speedy Ortiz is a Philly band led by Phair fan Sadie Dupuis — came just hours after the nomination of Brett Kavanaugh was advanced by a vote in the U.S. Senate and at the end of a week in which Christine Blasey Ford, who accused Kavanaugh of committing sexual assault in 1982, was mocked by President Trump at a rally in Mississippi.
Both singer-guitarists addressed their anger and frustration from the stage. During a sharp, effectively engaging opening set that drew on Speedy Ortiz's new Twerp Verse, Dupuis urged fans to vote and asked for donations to raise money to publish copies of a Making Spaces Safer pocket guide promoting mutual respect at shows.
She also led the crowd in a tension-breaking primal-scream session "because I can't stand the news," and in a lighter moment, introduced "No Below" as "a love letter to Gritty," the crazy-eyed orange beast Flyers mascot who didn't show up at Union Transfer despite a public invitation and Dupuis' announcement that "I'm officially dating him."
Phair's 90-minute headlining set pulled from Guyville, hitting its stride with the magic realist momentum of "6' 1'' " and the driving rocker "Mesmerizing," mixed in with well-selected cuts from her subsequent career such as "Uncle Alvarez" and one brand-new song that explored sexual politics called "The Game."
The 51-year-old singer was supported by a solid four-man backing band and displayed composure that showed how far she's come since debuting as a stunningly authoritative songwriter whom old heads remember as being stricken with paralyzing stage fright when she made her Philadelphia debut at the Khyber Pass Pub in 1993.
Emotionally searing quarter-century-old Guyville songs spoke with particular acuity to the right now, including "Divorce Song," about casual male cruelty that doesn't bother to take the devastating consequences of its actions into consideration.
Before she got to that show-closing one-two punch, however, Phair found a way of cutting through the tension with an impromptu version of Johnny Nash's 1972 hit "I Can See Clearly Now," which she and her band mates improvised on the spot, spreading smiles all around.