After playing her third song at Portland House of Music and Events on Saturday, Lucy Dacus asked her audience if they had been going to shows latey. As if they knew the question was coming, the crowd shouted back in unison, “NO!”
Dacus, the Virginian singer-songwriter known for her acclaimed albums, No Burden and Historian, as well as her work with Phoebe Bridgers and Julien Baker as one third of boygenius, had not played a headlining show indoors since late 2019.
The night was a welcome first-in-a-while for Dacus’ audience too: Portland, Maine hasn’t seen live music as usual in nearly 15 months, with venues like the State Theater, SPACE Gallery, and One Longfellow Square last hosting their regular concert crowds in early March of last year. Dacus’ show came as one of a few indoor gigs slated for this summer at the Portland House of Music and Events. Of those shows, Dacus was the venue’s first non-local act, selling out PHOME’s capacity of under 300 in mere days.
Despite the unprecedented anticipation, Dacus delivered. With a high-energy set heavy with raw emotion and new music from her third album, Home Video, Dacus showed few signs of rust in her return inside, and the Portland crowd met her energy at every turn.
Dacus began the set with “Hot & Heavy,” a boppy rock jam filled with synths and summery nostalgia. Dacus’ music has often been mislabeled as Americana and even alt-country, but there’s no trace of that here. Dacus has always been rock-minded—the lone song from Dacus’ debut album in the set was the fuzzy and witty “I Don’t Wanna Be Funny Anymore”— but the sounds of Home Video venture even further from her critics’ mischaracterizations. There are glossy synths on the poppier cuts “Hot & Heavy” and “Brando,” while others like “First Time” are straightforward head-bangers.
The plodding thud of “VBS” in particular drew such head-banging reactions out of the Portland crowd. Many fans—this writer among them—gave an anguished cheer when Dacus asked who in the room had been to Vacation Bible School, the song’s namesake.
In addition to “VBS,” Dacus’ set was full of successful test runs. “That’s exactly how I pictured that would go,” Dacus cheered after performing “Going Going Gone”, a cozy rumination on childhood flirting that begs for a sing-along (the crowd, of course, obliged). Among the newer synthetic sounds on Home Video, “Partner in Crime” features Dacus using auto-tune for the first time on record, and the sleek, live-tuned vocals went over without a hitch.
Particularly in quieter moments of the set, Dacus’ songwriting shined through. Released this year, “Thumbs” is a song Dacus has been playing live since 2018, but would ask fans to not record it until recently. The song details with heartbreaking specificity a day when a friend of Dacus meets with her estranged father, and Dacus softly fantasizes about killing him. Dacus sang “Thumbs” sitting down at the end of the stage, a lone synth line accompanying her.
The same specificity is at work in the hopeful build of “Triple Dog Dare”, which details a queer love story that ends in a fantasy of escaping on the family boat: “I can fish for our food and you know how to start a flame,” Dacus sang. By the time they’ve gotten away, Dacus has built the song up from complete silence to a triumphant storm of guitar fuzz and synths— Dacus told the crowd it’s her favorite to play live lately.
As such a skilled storyteller, Dacus has said that words are more important to her than music. Fortunately for us, the music is pretty damn good too. Dacus ended her set with her show-stopping hit, “Night Shift”, a relentless breakup anthem ending in a fiery refrain that has shaken venues that dwarf the size of PHOME. The sound of that refrain is immense, but it’s the words that stay in mind long after the show:
You got a 9 to 5, so I’ll take the night shift
And I’ll never see you again if I can help it
In five years I hope the songs feel like covers,
Dedicated to new lovers.
Dacus noted the special nature of the night—it’s finally been five years since 2016, when she wrote the song and played it the night after at The National in Richmond, Virginia. Five years and one pandemic later, that same refrain sparked a brilliant release 500 miles north in Portland. We hope to see Dacus again, if we can help it.
Setlist: Lucy Dacus | Portland House of Music and Events | Portland, ME | 7/24/21
Set: Hot & Heavy, First Time, Addictions, Christine, VBS, Brando, Partner in Crime, Please Stay, Going Going Gone, I Don’t Wanna Be Funny Anymore, Triple Dog Dare, Thumbs
Encore: Night Shift