When Variety asked the members of Boygenius in an interview earlier this month about the setlists for their upcoming shows, they made it clear — no solo material, just band stuff, because that’s sufficient to fill festival-length sets anyway. On top of that, perhaps unspoken is the idea that keeping to Boygenius selections helps keep everything democratic, which would become just a little tougher if suddenly “Kyoto” earned the supergroup’s loudest roar out on the road each night. But the trio is doing some headlining shows this spring and summer, outside of festival dates. Do they really have enough in their arsenal from 2018’s initial EP and the full album that just came out to make a full show feel like a full meal?
That question was answered pretty satisfactorily — OK, let’s say pretty magnificently — with Boygenius’ concert Wednesday night at the Fox Pomona Theatre in California’s Riverside County, which they proudly and not-very-nervously declared was their first concert since 2018. (This was true and not true: There was a 12-song benefit in San Francisco at a sub-400-seater last year… and hey, what about that cheeky busking at the Austin airport terminal during SXSW arrivals? But we know what they mean.)
Playing each and every song from the two records they have out, including “The Record,” added up to a just-about-right 75 minutes that just like a main course and apertifs and dessert wine besides. The FOMO was strong on this one, as a waiting Boygenius Nation ate up all the sloppy seconds they could get from video bites on the web as the show proceeded — and, in fact, you did miss out if you weren’t one of the 1,750 inside, although, not to worry, this is going to be a repeatable phenomenon.
Long story short, for what’s to come on the road this summer: They are strong enough to be Your Band. On their first full-length album, the just-released “The Record,” Boygenius somehow managed to find the ideal balance and blend of voices, personalities and musical sensibilities, probably without anybody even busting any calculators out. That unlabored alchemy continues with what has been inevitably dubbed The Tour, as going without a leader continues to put them on the leader board. If Lucy Dacus, say, is going to sing lead on two songs in a row in the set, no applecart is going to be upset — the flow between the songs they sing collectively or individually is so strong is so natural that you’re not going to spend very minutes of the show, if any, wondering how tradeoffs in the spotlight are going to pan out. Even with this little group performing time under their belt, it’s almost as if they started off as Boygenius and i was the solo projects that were the side hustles.
I’ll confess I came into this opening night with just one minuscule worry, besides whether the show would feel long enough. And that’s how they would distribute the bangers in their catalog across the setlist, since there aren’t many of them. Specifically, there are, like, two that really count as heavy-duty rockers on “The Record” — “$20” and “Satanist.” Maybe do one at the beginning and the other at the end, for symmetry’s sake? Nothing so easy as that. The band did both barnburners back-to-back at the very beginning of the show (or effectively at the beginning, as they immediately followed a very shortened version of “Without You Without Them” that served as a quickie a cappella prelude). It takes a certain kind of chutzpah to completely front-load your show with the couple of numbers that are most guaranteed to get a crowd thrashing.
Or a certain kind of, um, genius? Having dispensed with the pure calisthenics part of the show right at the outset, the band had the freedom to move into the balladic material that has characterized more of the two releases to date and then, as the end was near, accentuate some of the mid-tempo songs that take their time building into some kind of climax. Suffice it to say that Phoebe Bridgers had not screamed for the last time when she opened her mouth into a full rock bellow for the outro of “$20.” And that Julien Baker would find further opportunity, as the show proceeded, to get so in-your-face with her electric guitar playing that she would arch her back and get in her own face with it. But there’s so much beauty in the band’s nascent catalog that it felt like a blessing to know that they would just bask in that for extended stretches, following the initially half-strobe-lit outbursts.
After the assaultive one-two of “$20” and “Satanist,” the band quickly set the force in balance with the two arguably prettiest songs on “The Record,” Bridgers’ “Emily I’m Sorry” and Dacus’ “True Blue.” Even in this lovely mini-stretch, there was complementarity, between “Emily” turning breakup ruminatin’ into a sad singalong and “Blue” offering a lushly harmonized epiphany of togetherness. Boygenius has been oft-cited as the epitome of sadcore, but it’s not that simple, or at least isn’t as of the new album. Because at least for the length of “True Blue,” you could describe the group as… contented-core. “It feels good to be known so well,” Dacus sings, in one of the group’s most plain-spoken lyrics. And while it’s surely meant to be addressed to a friend or lover, it applies to how a lot of the band’s fans feel as they obsess over Boygenius, or their alternately sweet and acidic songs: seen.
That song, already one of 2023’s most indelible, is like a warm bath you never want to get out of. But get out you must, and the show does, so you can dry off with “Cool About It,” one of the more egalitarian, three-part-harmony songs off the new album, which has Bridgers taking a solo verse to singing a typically brilliantly ambivalent line like “Now I have to act like I can’t read your mind.” That’s the sort of lyric — not unusually in Boygenius’ repertoire — that can send you into an emotional deep dive, or actual mindf—, for a few bars before you have to snap yourself back to attention to take in the show.
The band members (who are augmented by four additional, mostly backlit players) literally change posture at points, to match the mood. Bridgers sat on the drum riser and strummed acoustic guitar for a while as Dacus freed herself from her guitar and mic stand and gently traversed the stage, back and forth; for one song, all three of the frontwomen were sitting, or crouching, on stage — which can be kind of an ironic thing to do in front of an adrenalized SRO crowd. Probably every attendee’s favorite moment in the show, just physically speaking, came at the end of the main set when Baker, who takes the center position on stage, had Bridgers and Dacus literally falling at her feet, and bringing her and her guitar down with them. It wasn’t clear whether it counted as a congenial attack or a roughneck cuddle. Most likely, the horseplay was all of that mixed in with a sense of glee that they’d just made it with flying colors through their out-of-town tryout show, to start a tour that’s sure going to be a lot more high-profile than the one they did as relative ingenues five years ago.
For the last song of their encore, they eschewed microphones and did “Ketchum, ID,” more closely grouped together than they had been during the previous 75 minutes, after successfully suggesting the audience might need to simmer down for this one. It kind of half-worked, as their unamplified voices were a little too quiet on this one to really be reaching the balcony throughout the tune — and there was a big laugh when someone’s walkie-talkie or monitor talk caused a big blast of unwanted male energy in the middle of the tune. But unlike the kind of performers who would flinch at that interruption, they had a laugh about it. Chance are they will probably not be trying that gambit at Coachella the next two weekends. But it was a nice enough gesture, you didn’t necessarily mind the inaudibility of some of it. Part of the reason Bridgers has been so successful as a solo artist is that she makes you lean in to hear her, in a world of shouters; why shouldn’t that whole ethos become flesh, at the end of a Boygenius concert?
The band’s exit music, incidentally, was 100 Gecs’ “Dumbest Girl Alive”… a funny sort of bookend after their intro song was Thin Lizzy’s “The Boys Are Back in Town.” Even in their PA before-and-after choices, it’s kind of a not-entirely-binary world. Meanwhile, the three members of Boygenius will have to decide just how binary they want to be with their careers, in where to go next after here. This show is so good, you may feel like urging them to do the completely counterintuitive thing and just do another Boygenius record and tour in 2024. Maybe that’s a ridiculous hope, but “Kyoto” could wait — the boys are on a roll, and even bigger swaths of the country deserve a shot at seeing one of the best touring rock shows that’s going to come anyone’s way in the near future.