I bought Become What You Are in an underground (like, literally underground) Boston record shop in 1993. As a freshman at Boston University, the first thing I learned about Massachusetts music was that Juliana Hatfield was…well, everything. Indie darling, coveted collaborator, star on the rise. Everyone had a crush on her; including me, though I hardly even knew what she looked like.
How could you not fall in love with the person who made that album? It was tough and smart, yet also fun and appealingly unassuming. I finally saw Juliana Hatfield live and in person 20 years later, when she came to The Current’s studios in 2013 with Minor Alps. Of all the musical celebrities I’ve brushed elbows with so far in this job—Wayne Coyne, Spoon, Kim Gordon, Mike Mills—nothing has given me such a rush as holding a door for Juliana Hatfield.
Though Hatfield is often mentioned in the company of her peers among the great women indie rockers of the 90s, her music never had the naked pathos of, for example, Hole; or the brutal attack of, say, Babes in Toyland, whose drummer Lori Barbero was in the audience at the Turf Club last night for a stop on the 21st anniversary tour for Become What You Are.
Hatfield’s songs are more elliptical: a Hatfield song often starts with a catchy guitar figure (whether pretty or pounding) and meanders through several lines of narrative delivered in Hatfield’s playful, melodic style before finally working up to an emotional apotheosis, with Hatfield singing a repeated word or phrase as the music squalls beneath her.
That makes the material well-suited for a low-key throwback set like Sunday night’s, which had Hatfield and her early-90s band (featuring Dean Fisher on bass and Todd Philips on drums) playing Become What You Are from front to back. (“Maybe on the west coast, we’ll play it in reverse order,” mused Hatfield.)
Ready to rock in a navy blue jumpsuit and always ready with a gently self-deprecating quip, Hatfield offhandedly showed that her classic-era songs still retain their charm—and that, beneath the surface charms, the music’s raw core is still there too, and it cuts as deep as it ever did.
Of course, it always helps to buoy the spirits on a nostalgia tour when you’ve just released a new album that’s as strong as anything you’ve ever done, which is the case with Hatfield’s oddly neglected new collection Whatever, My Love. Released just last month, the album is officially the follow-up to Become What You Are; it picks up right where that album left off, with songs that are both sweeter and, all in all, stronger.
We had to wait for new material on Sunday night, though, as Hatfield, Fisher, and Philips romped through Become like they’d just released it yesterday. The popular hits (“My Sister,” “Spin the Bottle”) sparkled, but the crowd—largely of the Reality Bites generation—clearly relished the chance to hear the album’s deep cuts like “A Dame with a Rod” and “President Garfield,” which ended with a righteously grungy guitar freakout that showcased Hatfield’s underrated instrumental chops.
A six-song encore spotlighted three songs from the new album (but not, oddly, the glorious single “If I Could”), sandwiched by material from Only Everything, the 1995 solo album that was Hatfield’s next release after Become What You Are. The real treat there was a raved-up “What a Life,” which opened the encore with wry fire. A second encore featured “Nirvana,” from Hatfield’s 1992 debut Hey Babe.
At one point, Hatfield asked whether anyone at the show hadn’t yet been born when Become What You Are was released. If anyone shouted out, I couldn’t hear it: further proof that the album’s still young, if not quite as young as it sounds.
Last night’s openers were Whatever Forever, a local quartet who share Hatfield’s taste for melodic guitar crunch—even if their rampaging songs hark back more to the 80s underground than Hatfield’s 90s heyday. “We got an e-mail, like, today asking if we wanted to open for Juliana Hatfield,” said the band’s Clara Salyer. “It was the best e-mail to get.”
Juliana Hatfield Three Set List
Supermodel (Become What You Are, 1993)
My Sister (Become What You Are, 1993)
This is the Sound (Become What You Are, 1993)
For the Birds (Become What You Are, 1993)
Mabel (Become What You Are, 1993)
A Dame with a Rod (Become What You Are, 1993)
Addicted (Become What You Are, 1993)
Feelin’ Massachusetts (Become What You Are, 1993)
Spin the Bottle (Become What You Are, 1993)
President Garfield (Become What You Are, 1993)
Little Pieces (Become What You Are, 1993)
I Got No Idols (Become What You Are, 1993)
What a Life (Only Everything, 1995)
Dumb Fun (Only Everything, 1995)
Wood (Whatever, My Love, 2015)
Push Pin (Whatever, My Love, 2015)
I’m Shy (Whatever, My Love, 2015)
Fleur De Lys (Only Everything, 1995)
Nirvana (Hey Babe, 1992)
The Juliana Hatfield Three
Writer Jay Gabler is a digital producer at The Current. Photographer Bridget Bennett is a student at the University of Minnesota—Twin Cities.