A Concussion Couldn't Stop boygenius from Making Core Memories in Toronto

Budweiser Stage, June 21

With Claud and Broken Social Scene

Photo: Karen K. Tran

BY Megan LaPierrePublished Jun 22, 2023

It was the day of the summer solstice, and the boys were back in town; the sold-out crowd at Budweiser Stage had the good fortune of savouring the boygenius show day for longer than anyone else this year.

The supergroup of Julien Baker, Phoebe Bridgers and Lucy Dacus seemed to be savouring it, too. "Core memory formed," Bridgers said, awestruck when the audience used coloured paper and their phone flashlights to make the 16,000-capacity venue light up as a Pride Month rainbow during "Cool About It" — a fan project months in the making.

boygenius's return to Toronto had likewise been many months (around 55, but who's counting?) in the making. It's safe to say that they've levelled up since performing at the Danforth Music Hall in November 2018, and relished it: in addition to Bridgers's Saddest Factory Records signee Claud, they recruited local band Broken Social Scene — one of Dacus's all-time favourites, she told us; "That's the first show that made me wanna play music, and now I…  do?" — to open the show. 

Kicking things off, the burst of colour that is "Pacific Theme" was even more vivid than the two pairs of very white pants worn on stage. "Brendan Canning thought we were opening for Boy George," Kevin Drew joked, then started singing Culture Club's "Do You Really Want to Hurt Me" and a meagre portion of the crowd sang along. Chockfull of parent-child duos, the night was a family affair; unsurprisingly, the parents generally seemed much more excited about BSS than the kids. However, even the uninitiated could get into it, and grooved along to selections from our list of Broken Social Scene's 20 best songs, including the satisfying succession of "Cause = Time" and "7/4 (Shoreline)" (No. 9 and No. 2, respectively).

The overall sentiment was one of gratitude, with Drew repeating, "We've been doing this for a long time," throughout the set, which did indeed run a little long. I've been privy to a well-entrusted hot take that BSS might even be better as an opening act than as headliners in their own right, although they certainly have the pull for the latter. As Drew emphasized with palpable excitement and emotion, we were all there for the same reason: boygenius. They fittingly closed with their best song and the hallmark of a Bridgers sweatshirt, "Anthems for a Seventeen Year-Old Girl" — a hymn for every demographic.

Before the boys came on, there was a land acknowledgement and smudging ceremony in honour of Indigenous People's Day. We've all been in those uncomfortably stiff, mispronounced land-acknowledgement situations where it seems like an awkward formality for whatever white person is speaking at an academic conference or whatever, but this one felt meaningful. The fact that we're on stolen land was just the tip of the iceberg, with the two-spirit guests of honour acknowledging the cultural and literal genocide of Indigenous peoples in so-called Canada, as well as sending out a prayer for the epidemic of missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls.

These are the kind of ancestors Baker, Bridgers and Dacus give thanks to on the record's a cappella opening track, "Without You Without Them." A pre-recorded video of them singing it, standing in a huddle, played before boygenius took the the stage in their School of Rock cosplay while Thin Lizzy blasted from the speakers. They kept that energy going, promptly launching into a high-octane rendition of "$20" — a song about the cost of a drink at Budweiser Stage. 

After the existential heft of "Satanist" and its outro, where the trio sing, "You wonder if you can even be seen / From so far away," Dacus got real with even those all the way at the back of the lawn (er, Bacardi Hill?) Donning shades in her best Corey Hart impression, she revealed that she had a concussion.

"I really want to be here," Dacus said, explaining that her doctor cleared her to do the show but she wouldn't be able to be on her feet for all of it. Having performed lying on a couch with herniated discs last year, she remains the epitome of punk rock and the relaxed performance champion that we all need — and didn't miss a single note with her voice's singular full-bodied clarity. 

When Dacus expressed insecurity about performing rip-roaring closing song "Salt in the Wound" while sitting down, the audience's encouragement of how cool she looked was genuinely heartening. As was the cuddle puddle that ensued between the band at the end, with Bridgers jumping on her concussed bandmate and kissing her all over, then dragging Baker and her guitar onto the chair too.

"Emily I'm Sorry" was the first moment I really became aware of just how big the crowd was. You know how you can forget when you're in the thick of it? I was wearing ear plugs and people were singing along to this leftover Punisher dirge so loudly, my ears were ringing. Seeing all these kids and parents and gaggles of teens in homemade shirts (which was decidedly the move, since the merch was sold out before Broken Social Scene's set had even finished) made me realize that I now sort of exist in a realm of life that I only knew in daydreams when I was younger.

In similar imaginative territory, the boys and their all-women backing band (elevated on risers so we could actually see them!) played a new song dedicated to "your boyfriends." It's in B Flat, which multi-instrumental mastermind Baker — who played keys for "We're In Love" and banjo for "Graceland Too — said she hates. "Music joke," she chuckled, and it occurred to me that music is something people readily love without understanding. It's an inside joke that doesn't exclude anyone who wants to be in on it. You don't have to speak the language of theory, know the historical antecedents or prove yourself in the contemporary culture with stan accounts; you just have to feel it.

This was the most people boygenius had ever played for, and Bridgers shared a memory of an early Toronto show at the Drake. She was opening for Baker, who she had met just a few days prior, and had strep throat. She tried to power through her set but admittedly couldn't hit a single note. Alone backstage afterwards, Bridgers wept — before realizing she wasn't alone, as Baker appeared with a hot toddy for her. "I'm grateful to this place for bringing me that moment," Bridgers said.

And I'm grateful to her for the one she created by asking everyone to put their phones away for "Letter to an Old Poet," the heart-rending yet hopeful final track on the record. It had my mind jumping ahead to the encore, when the trio played the Bridgers track where the protagonist wonders if Elvis believed that songs could come true. "I'm asking for it if they do," they sang in harmony. Sometimes harmonies resonate even more deeply — particularly atop the understated twang of road-song standard in-the-making, "Ketchum, ID" — when the people they're emanating from are directly in front of you. The collision feels even more like magic when the disembodied come together a way that feels beyond this world.

It felt surreal to see these bonafide rockstars that I somehow stumbled into the fortune of chatting with on Zoom play their biggest show yet. Developing something of a parasocial attachment to the artists you love is all too easy; you feel like you know them through their music, their interviews, their social media, their stage presence. Getting to personally connect with people whose art you already feel so deeply connected to is such a rarity. I couldn't help but find it strange to be in the space of knowing that so many hearts in the vicinity would break for the chances I've been given. When Dacus sang, "I hope I'm not a regular," on "We're In Love," I felt a pang.

Because I remember waiting at barricades and outside tour busses for hours (and being chastised as a "fangirl" or "groupie" for it) just in the hopes of having a tiny interaction. When luck permitted that to happen, I held onto it so tightly, letting the memory lull me to sleep at night; just knowing that it's all real, and there are people out there who wield the power to put my most alienating feelings into perfect words that feel like coming home. Bands like boygenius make you feel like all that emotional intensity is in fact an anti-curse.

I cried at your show with the teenagers.

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