Few songwriters hit the level of acclaim earned by Phoebe Bridgers right out of the box. But the California native captured the hearts and minds of critics and music fans alike with her 2017 debut album Stranger in the Alps, not to mention her work with side bands boygenius (with Julien Baker and ACL alum Lucy Dacus) and Better Oblivion Community Center (with another ACL vet, Conor Oberst). But it was 2020’s Punisher that catapulted her into the ring of stardom, thanks to singles “Kyoto,” “Garden Song” and “Savior Complex” and a raft of Grammy nominations. So we were jazzed to host Bridgers for her debut Austin City Limits taping as she played Punisher from start to finish.
“All right, let’s do it,” Bridgers said as she and her skeleton-costumed band took the stage, opening with “Motion Sickness,” a highlight from her debut. She moved over to Punisher, starting with the instrumental interlude “DVD Menu,” which led directly into the ethereal “Garden Song.” “This is our first indoor show in two years,” she noted, donning a B.C. Rich Warlock guitar for the sparkling power pop tune “Kyoto,” frosted with JJ Kirkpatrick’s trumpet fills. Putting aside her axe, she plucked the mic from its stand and joined pianist Nicholas White on his stand for the shimmering ballad that acts as the title track for Punisher. She kept the mood downcast and beautiful for “Halloween,” a song keyed in on Bridgers’ three-part harmony with drummer Marshall Vore and violinist/guitarist Emily Kohavi. Guitarist Harrison Whitford contributed vocal counterpoint to the coda as well.
Bridgers strapped on her acoustic guitar for another Alps number, the melancholy “Funeral.” Electric guitar came back for the epic “Chinese Satellite,” a masterfully crafted blend of the personal and political. That was followed by the carefully detailed “Moon Song,” a heartbreaking portrait of a relationship’s slow disintegration. She followed with the equally emotionally fragile “Savior Complex,” before getting more assertive with “ICU,” a song inspired by a political argument in a Whole Foods parking lot. Her band recalibrated itself so that Vore could come forward to play banjo alongside Kohvai’s violin for the semi-acoustic beauty “Graceland Too.” “Thanks for coming,” Bridgers said as she prepped for the final song. “This is wild. It’s been a dream.” She and the band ended the set appropriately with “I Know the End,” the epic that concludes Punisher, going out in a hail of freeform noise and distortion. Bridgers kicked her mic stand over, waved to the crowd, and was gone as the amps fed back. The show was an auspicious debut for a remarkable singer/songwriter, and we can’t wait for you to see it when it airs later this December on your local PBS station.