Liz Phair, Wheat, Rachael Yamagata at the Intersection
Grand Rapids, Michigan, March 15, 2004
Grand Rapids has an odd relationship with rock and roll. Located in central western Michigan, the city is a haven for Reformed Christianity, and the social conservatism that comes with it. In a broad sense, it’s lite rock lilt and the long arm of the Lord that keep GR’s toes a-tappin’. But just like a new kid with a hair lip, this blond and bland environment was just asking to be fucked with. Legendary haunts like The Reptile House took up the gauntlet; it rocked bondage nights and The Melvins before The Man finally drove it out. The Intersection did its part too, for years helping to anchor a shabby corner jumble of drunk haunts and hot dog joints, but those days died with the opening of a shiny new downtown Intersection, cleansed to resemble a Calvinist teen’s vision of the ultimate Christian rock clubhouse. What would Liz do?
At least the Intersection reopened, sans damn dirty hippy scum but still booking national acts for a city starving for some danger. Its new incarnation was large, clean, and one piece of flair away from a Bennigan’s, but its sight lines nice and its monitors huge. And to their credit, Grand Rapids’ cornfed faithful were out in force for Monday night’s Liz Phair gig. They shifted their feet unenthusiastically for opener Rachael Yamagata, who started at the decidedly ungodly time of 7pm, causing the GloNo posse to miss most of her shimmering dusk folk set. The last halting chords faded away as two squat Ram Man look-alikes discussed NASCAR power rankings behind us.
Trains of Rubenesque Dutch girls threaded their way to the front as the night’s second act began – it was the T-shirts that lulled them. Wheat, a friendly Boston-based quintet decked out in colorful pattern’d separates, did their goddamn best to get a rise out of the growing audience. Problem was, their updated Gin Blossoms bop was less adventurous than Grand Rapids on a Sunday morning. You’d think the types in attendance would eat bland up, given their city’s tendency towards polite homogeny. And yet, as Wheat finished another title song submission to some imaginary PG romantic comedy, the congregation just kept getting rowdier. Was this a Liz Phair show or a worship starring Avalon?
The Intersection’s elaborate lighting system went to house, and a swarm of major label tour support thugs dismantled Wheat’s fabulously underused vintage equipment. A waitress wandered in from the real Cancun, proffering Jager bombs like stolen stereo equipment. Suddenly figures bounded through laughable clouds of stage smoke, and the near sell-out audience erupted like people who cheer for the sound guy. It turned out they were right however, as the shapes took positions behind instruments pushed severely to the stage’s four corners. All that was missing was a Mick Jagger ramp for Liz’s big entrance; she took shape in front of the lights as petite and heavily made-up, singing “Rock Me” through a remote Rhythm Nation mic. And the crowd went as wild as they did Dutch. It was like soup bar day at Russ’.
Freed of a mic stand and given room to roam, Phair took to a brand new dance. Like an animated version of her recent cover shot, the Fender Jaguar became an electric sex toy as she borrowed Britney’s dance moves, fingering its fingerboard and letting her tips dance over its head. “Why Can’t I?” she sang, smiling. “Oh baby know what you’re like?” with a timed toss of her mane. “You’re like my favorite underwear.” Beside us, a gang of cleancuts whooped like sailors. In front, an overweight couple in their forties swayed gently to and fro, watching Liz with rapt attention. “We haven’t fucked yet but my head’s spinning…” What was going on here? It was like bringing a happy and bustling church van to the Onyx Hotel.
After the preaching and the grandstanding and the bible studies were through, Grand Rapids seemed to want a different kind of wristband. Tearing happily through a strong midsection that included “Never Said,” “Extraordinary,” and a triumphant “Love/Hate,” Liz made it a war with a city’s whole wide world of WWJD and slacks on Sunday. Drugs, hunger, race, sex, government – in conservative Grand Rapids, nothing’s ever really going to change. But at least for one night, it let the rock and roll win.
Liz could’ve peed on the bible and gotten the key to the city.