“Baby, it’s Halloween / And we can be anything,” Phoebe Bridgers once promised, in a song named after the high holy day of Oct. 31. Bridgers did not sing that particular seasonal number as part of Boygenius‘ Halloween show at the Hollywood Bowl Tuesday night, but the band took the sentiment to heart, at least. If you were a member of Boygenius and thought you could be anything, what or who would you be? We got the answer: They would be each other, naturally.
And so in the climactic stretch of the trio’s triumphant tour finale, to end a show that had already involved some dress-up, they dressed as each other. They sang as each other, too. In the place of the part of the tour set where each of them has been doing one selection each from their solo careers every night, the three members instead took the lead on one of the other boys’ trademark tunes, while also switching the custom-made, monogrammed, Flying Burrito Brothers-style jackets they’d designed for themselves. Wearing Lucy Dacus‘ coat (emblazoned with such totems as an extracted tooth and a state of Idaho emblem), Bridgers performed Dacus’ “Night Shift.” Dacus, in a jacket clearly labeled “JB,” sang Julien Baker‘s “Good News.” And the wonderfully unsettling game of round-robin was made complete with Baker taking on the role of Bridgers for “Motion Sickness.”
It was a goofy lark, on a Halloween night that benefitted from a serious case of the sillies at many junctures along the way… starting with the point in Sloppy Jane’s opening set when Bridgers came out to sing a duet of “Claw Machine” with her high school friend Haley Dahl while dressed as a ghost, in full cheap-sheet-with-eyeholes-cut-out mode. But, if you wanted to take it a bit more seriously, you could see it as a more-than-tacit acknowledgement of how friends’ identities can cross lines and blur a little, in the best possible way, when bonds have become as tight as they apparently have during Boygenius’ celebrated second chapter as a supergroup in 2023.
This was not even the major costuming choice of Boygenius’ night, though. For the trio’s main garb, they seemed to take a cue from their most insanely commercial-sounding song, “Strong Enough,” which has as its bridge a recurring chant of “Always an angel, never a god.” If just for a night, they took on all the divinity they could muster: Baker was dressed as a robed Christ, with a crown of thorns, white robe and crimson sash, and a painted, tear-streaked face. Bridgers was (if we have our iconography correct) Mary, with a semi-circular, pearl-like headdress, and a shiny cross across her chest under a sheer gown. Dacus looked less specific in her godliness, simply affixing a halo to the back of her head, otherwise looking more contemporary with a sharp white jacket that revealed a bit more open chest than most deistic figures would.
It didn’t end there. “Behold the lamb of God,” said Bridgers, welcoming her well-known dog, Maxine, onto the stage mid-set (and instructing the audience to snap fingers, not clap, so as not to terrify the sheep).
Maxine’s appearance may have counted as the most cherished cameo of the night. Coming in a close second, though, was Dave Grohl, who arrived in zombie makeup to thrash his way as guest drummer through one of the trio’s most agreeably hard-rocking numbers, “Satanist.” Grohl’s great spot — the only cameo of the night from a human — was the sort of obvious climax that a less secure band might have shifted toward the end of a setlist, not kept in place where it always sits near the beginning. But Boygenius is not the kind of band to upend its regular set just for a fellow star, regardless of his status as an undead among immortals (and the only male musician to appear on stage at all during their almost two-hour performance). It was swell, but its early placement belied a confidence: Actually, we can follow that.
But that’s been the ethos of the set structure that Boygenius has pretty much stuck with since the band did its first show of this particular era in Pomona back in April… before Coachella, before Madison Square Garden, before all the other festival or headlining gigs. After a backstage a cappella opening number (“Without You Without Them”) that the audience sees projected live on the big screen, the three member charge out and truly kick things off with two of the great electric-guitar anthems of this or any recent year, “$20” and the aforementioned “Satanist”… and then settle right in to a stretch of some of the most gorgeous numbers from this spring’s “The Record”: “Emily I’m Sorry,” “True Blue” and “Cool About It.” The show starts with tonight-we’re-gonna-rock-you-tonight energy, then boldly follow that with an extended bout of sheer beauty that rocks your spine-chill center. When the show recaptures some of that early intensity at the end, with something like a “Salt in the Wound,” it’s at more of a medium boil.
With a band that has three such perfectly well-matched, equally gifted frontwomen (sorry, frontboys), is it any wonder that they have found a way to end their 2023 touring show with such a sense of equilibrium?
One reason “The Record” feels like the best album of the year — and that Boygenius feels like the greatest American rock band of the moment — is their gift of keeping all things in balance, unholy trinity that they are. The tender moments that abound, maybe most frequently in some of the Dacus-fronted numbers, are set off by the cheeky or emotionally dangerous ones that lay in wait, like Bridgers softly singing that she’d like to kick a tormentor’s teeth in (in “Revolution 0”) or didn’t mind watching a narcissist accidentally injure himself (in “Letter to an Old Poet”). They aren’t afraid to contradict themselves in mid-song, like Bridgers instantly correcting herself about a fear of death (also “Revolution 0”) or Dacus interrupting a pure song of love and devotion like “True Blue” to make an aside about something that pissed her off that will otherwise go unmentioned. Baker, at center stage in the concerts, brings fire and sometimes snark and also settles into the most gorgeous two- and three-part harmonies this side of Laurel Canyon.
There have been notable additions to the set since the tour’s April beginning. They include those three solo numbers — as subverted on this particular night in the manner described earlier. But happily, the value-added bits include all four numbers from the just-released EP “The Rest.” For that quiet mini-set of fresher material, they took their rest upon a B-stage about halfway up the Bowl’s famous rake, playing the new stuff to the bench seats and beyond.
All four songs are terrific, with a lot of mentions of spacecraft and physics and the cosmos that seem fairly appropriate for a night under the stars with the gods. But it’s hard not to pick out an earthbound favorite: the Dacus-sung “Afraid of Heights,” in which she responds to a cocky, risk-taking friend or lover with some pride in the fear she’s being urged to be ashamed of, singing, “”I don’t wanna live forever / But I don’t wanna die tonight” and “Not everybody gets the chance to live a life that isn’t dangerous.” Maybe it’s the sense of real danger in the world right now that made that rebuttal of needless risk feel a little more pungent.
But nobody will exactly accuse anyone in Boygenius of real timidity, even if they write smart songs about refusing to jump off bridges. There’s real valor, if not derring-do, in their songwriting, which never lands on anything resembling treacle. The most memorable Bowl moment for many attendees will be the one when Bridgers asked the audience to put their phones away for just one song — a request that has been a nightly ritual on the tour — so that she could sing what she apparently considers the most vulnerable song off this year’s album, “Letter to an Old Poet,” up close to the audience without seeing a sea of screen filters. Bridgers sang it while walking around the ramp that separates the Bowl’s pool and garden seating areas, lit by nothing but the best goddess lighting the Bowl could provide, and it paid off with a memory that the sold-out crowd will be happy to re-experience as just that.
Boygenius’ members are obviously big 100 Gecs fans; they’ve used that crew’s magnificently snotty “Dumbest Girl Alive” as their exit music for the entire tour. They didn’t give up that tradition Tuesday just because 100 Gecs was actually on the bill to perform it themselves, in the middle slot. There was a willful immaturity to the duo’s set (and an overdose of strobe effects) that might’ve made the Boygenius performance that followed seem even more grown-up than it otherwise might’ve, by contrast. But that’s nothing against how much rude fun 100 Gecs can be and are, even if they spend their whole set performing to tracks and distorting their voices for extra comic-Halloweeny effect. One exception to the tracks rule came when they brought out their own guest drummer, Josh Freese, arguably the other most beloved drummer of the modern era.
On a side note: Aside from Taylor Swift, you’d have trouble finding too many more acts that sell merch like Boygenius. The hours-long line for their merch table at the Re:SET festival in Pasadena in June looked to be rivaled by a line that threatened to stretch up from valet parking to the cheap seats at the Bowl. (Hope they weren’t all looking for the bespoke poster that sold out before Sloppy Jane ever took the stage.) It may seem trivial but the identification factor is serious here for a band that never does anything to be particularly cuddly or solicitous with its audience. The fortune they might be making off T-shirts aside, it’s nice to have a moment in culture where the thought that “everybody wants to be a boy” feels like a forward thing.