CHICAGO -- From the start of Liz Phair's show Sunday night at Lounge Ax here, the close quarters and spare instrumentation -- just the singer/songwriter and her sideman Buddy Judge on electric guitars -- marked the event as something special.
The prodigal daughter had come home.
"I haven't played here in five years," Phair told her hometown crowd. "The last time I played here I was so scared I can't even tell you," she added, alluding to the debilitating stage fright that plagued her early years as a performer.
Since that last Lounge Ax gig, Phair has gone from being an underground icon to bona fide rock star, touring with the Lilith Fair and (most recently) fellow strong-willed female singer/songwriter Alanis Morissette. And Phair has conquered -- or at least learned to control -- the stage fright.
The intimate setting and duo format suggested the atmosphere and sound of Phair's critically lauded lo-fi debut album, Exile In Guyville (1993). Appropriately, she opened her set with that album's "Glory," following it with the equally meditative "Girls' Room," a track from her 1998 album, whitechocolatespaceegg.
Moving confidently from that somber beginning to a pair of brashly uptempo Guyville favorites ("6"1' " and "Divorce Song"), Phair proved that the self-assurance she has always projected on her albums is now solidly within her grasp onstage as well.
Whether it was due to the maturity that comes with experience or the comfort that comes from months of touring, Phair displayed an easy familiarity with the audience. She even asked a woman from the front row to join her in singing "Flower," a notoriously X-rated chant from Guyville. The fan, Katie Brown, 24, of Boston, put her arm around Phair and sang every word. The crowd responded with a cascade of whistles, cheers and applause.
"My knees were shaking so much I thought they would buckle," Brown said afterward. "It was amazing. I'm sure I won't sleep tonight."
The schedule posted in the window of the tiny club had said "Hot Damn! Fashion Show, March 14." But it was the promise of an up-close-and-personal performance by Phair -- not the fashion show that would follow it -- that caused the event's 300 tickets to sell out in less than an hour.
Phair didn't disappoint. Headlining an evening of entertainment to benefit her sister-in-law's soon-to-be-opened thrift shop, her set, which drew heavily from Guyville, hewed to the evening's retro theme and wowed her fans.
"It was one of the most amazing shows I've ever seen," Craig King, 22, of Milwaukee, said. "To see her this close just blew my mind."
Other fans had much the same reaction to two of Phair's song choices in particular. These were the rarity "Wild Thing" (from her homemade 1991 cassette, Girly Sound) and a newly minted song Phair called "Conversation Overheard Between Two Bouncers." Built around a moody, repetitive guitar figure, the new song's lyric couched incisive, direct couplets in a heap of off-color observations -- in other words, it was typical Phair.
The balance of the set ranged from the shimmering melancholia of "Mesmerizing,"
"Perfect World" (RealAudio excerpt) and "Go On Ahead" to the irrepressible pop of
"Polyester Bride" (RealAudio excerpt). Throughout, the crowd joined in on most of the lyrics, shouting along to the set-closing "Fuck and Run" (RealAudio excerpt), the Guyville anthem that may be Phair's signature tune.
Although she returned for a two-song encore that included "Supernova" (RealAudio excerpt), the lone nod to her second album, 1994's Whip-Smart, the edgy, driving "Fuck and Run" would have been a more fitting close.
Phair delivered that song with as much fire and immediacy as it had when it first came throbbing from stereo speakers six years ago.