Eliza McLamb’s Return to DC: Concert Review
March 21, 2023
DC9 Nightclub is a treasured music venue, bar, and social site right off of U Street, known for events like karaoke and trivia as well as hosting artists that make it big later on. Snugly located between various restaurants and bars, DC9 is a three-story space where most shows don’t exceed $20, and food and drinks are comparatively inexpensive. DC9’s biggest drawback is that it resides in a building over a century old and it has not been updated with elevators, which creates a substantial accessibility issue, as the second floor is where the music is. I’ve attended some of my favorite concerts in the district at DC9, and it is a fantastic space to get to know unfamiliar artists and meet new people. Tonight is Eliza McLamb’s show, and the venue is busier than I’ve ever seen it. McLamb’s graceful voice, as well as her charming and funny persona, has drawn a sold-out crowd.
Many people know McLamb from Binchtopia, “A cultural commentary podcast” that she co-hosts with her friend and roommate Julia Hava. Each episode of Binchtopia is a conversation between McLamb and Hava, “The Gen Z Aristotle and Socrates,” and covers social issues, philosophy, and popular culture. Although McLamb is well-known from Binchtopia (“Lots of Binchies here!” my friend Olivia observes as we join the crowd), she’s carved out a space for herself as a music artist, having accumulated nearly 90,000 monthly listeners on Spotify and headlined various shows across the country. This spring, DC9 is the first stop of McLamb’s three-show mini-tour.
Tonight, the venue’s attendees are mostly college-aged, and I wave to several people I know in line. The bar that hugs the back end of the venue is warmly lit by snare drums hanging as lamps from the ceiling, bookmarking the bar as a pocket of light set against the electric, expectant energy of the stage and crowd. DC9’s second floor is home to five disco balls, and one is in the shape of Darth Vader’s head. They add flirtatious glitz to my favorite grungy, small-scale music scene in the city. I am a firm believer that there’s no such thing as a bad night at DC9.
At 7:30 PM, Hana Bryanne opens the show, delivering a melancholic acoustic set. With a pink-flowered guitar strap slung around their neck, Bryanne’s angelic voice spills from their mouth, clear and ethereal. Bryanne’s melodies puncture the warm air, their lyrics poetic and musing. Their newest single, “Holy Ground,” recounts tumultuous, heart-wrenching love, “We’ll build a house/ to burn it down/ Carve it in your bedpost/ like it’s scripture.” This song is one of four that Bryanne has released on Spotify—more often, they share their music and poetry with their nearly sixteen thousand followers on TikTok. In a few weeks, we’ll be blessed with a new record, which will include the song “Visions,” one of my favorites from the set.
There’s a rush at the front of the crowd when McLamb’s drummer lays the setlist on the floor of the stage by her microphone. “Pulp,” a single from McLamb’s most recent EP Salt Circle, is up first, much to the excitement of the first few rows of concertgoers. We’re in for an eleven-song show, which includes beloved older songs and intriguing new pieces. Ten minutes later, McLamb makes her way through the crowd to the stage, cascading into strong vocals under orange and turquoise lights. She’s dressed in a maroon striped sweater over a dusky skirt, accompanied by black platform Oxford Doc Martens. “Crack open a photo book/ Sit alone at 20 and look/ for a sign that I was there/ Staring to the ceiling/ and contemplate the feeling/ Of total obsoletion, dust, and despair,” McLamb sings dreamily, her voice reverberating with a celestial glow. This is a concert of devoted fans who sing and shout along to every song, cheering for McLamb between verses. The vibes are comfortable and casual, and when McLamb addresses the crowd, her skills as a podcast queen come out: it feels like a conversation with a friend.
“It’s so nice to see you here, I’m so happy that you’re here,” McLamb beams. “DC’s very special to me.” The audience hollers with district and school pride when McLamb explains that she attended George Washington University for a few semesters. McLamb is subdued at first but she becomes more animated and talkative as the show goes on, peppering the show with references to DC life as a college student. It’s a very particular experience that she and the audience collectively understand.
During “Debt,” the saddest song in the set, the crowd hushes with quiet reverence reserved for singers who share intimate sadness. Released in 2020, “Debt” reflects on a breakup during McLamb’s freshman year of college at GW. In “You almost slept through the breakup/ The sound of dorm dryers in the/ basement kept your head up/ I said I’m done washing your sheets,” McLamb visualizes what many college students know far too well: the aches of teenage heartbreak under dorm buildings’ harsh lights. Referencing DC’s terrible traffic and walks to the Tidal Basin in “Debt,” McLamb knits herself into the audience’s community, people who understand the pain of heartbreak in a big city far from home. McLamb reveals after the song’s close, “That song was written about, as it turns out, a gay man.” She’s sarcastic, funny, and engaging, and people in the audience throw their heads back with laughter.
“You guys are going to be the first to hear some new songs tonight,” McLamb reveals. “I’m working on a full-length album at the moment.” The record, which she plans to record in April, includes “Crybaby,” a slow ballad whose chorus hosts a resonant beat and distinct energy, juxtaposing its quieter, calmer verses. Tears dot the corners of eyes throughout the venue during “Strike,” which McLamb characterizes as her “first bona fide love song.” McLamb expresses that she isn’t sure whether “Strike,” which is currently unreleased, is ready for concert settings, but her audience is enthralled. I’ve never seen fans so intent on paying respect to an artist without knowing the words. The setlist is rich with new songs that creep their way into my brain and refuse to leave me alone even weeks after the show, leaving me enthusiastic to hear the new record.
“Glitter” shines bright as my favorite song of the night. It’s written, McLamb says, “For anybody who ever had a best friend when you were thirteen years old.” As it turns out, I’ve brought my best friend since birth with me to the concert, and we both agree that “Glitter” is sonically distinct from the others. It’s catchy, interspersed with calm and energetic elements in different stages of the song. The title reminds me of afternoons at Claire’s with my friends in middle school and of sparkly t-shirts that were staples in my closet at thirteen. The lyric, “I wanna kill your boyfriend” sparks a particular understanding and passion in the crowd and in my best friend, who hated both of my ex-boyfriends. “If you have a friend with a shitty boyfriend, I hate him!” McLamb laughs. “But karma-ically, it’ll all work out.” She’s right, for me at least, because I’m an out lesbian now! McLamb follows “Glitter” with “Salt Circle,” written for her best friend and the title of her 2022 EP. The friend groups in the audience embrace each other in hugs and sway together through the song’s conclusion. McLamb notices and quips, “If you told me when I was fifteen that I’d ever be writing ‘Holding your besties and swaying’ music, I’d be like, what?!”
“Ooh, is this gonna hurt me? The answer is yes, usually,” my friend Meaghan says happily about three-quarters of the way through the set. McLamb’s discography is rich with a variety of tempos and emotions. Introducing the penultimate song of the evening, McLamb recounts, “This song got me out of a huge writing block. It’s the first one I wrote off my most recent EP and I wrote it because I was like, biiiiiitch! You need to get it together!” One minute ago, McLamb had us crying about how much we love our friends, and the next, we’re roaring the chorus of “Doing Fine” with fiery energy that makes the floor buzz. “Thank you for screaming with me,” McLamb says mischievously at the song’s close.
To conclude the evening, McLamb makes use of the disco balls and orbs of light dance around the audience. We’re illuminated with rainbow light, and it’s gratifying to finally put faces to the voices I’ve heard around me for the last hour. “Lena Grove” is a phenomenal song to end on, leaving me with hope and a sense of satisfaction that always comes from stellar live music. “You are self-contained,/ it is through love/ you are sustained” repeats over and over, layered with a symphony of harmonies on the recorded track. Somehow, McLamb’s pure voice makes everyone around me sound cohesively pretty as they sing along. The clarity and sweetness of her voice almost echo Kacey Musgraves, minus the country twang.
McLamb’s work is gratifying in her recordings, but she breathes radiant life into her live performances, straying from the typical sounds of bedroom pop into a deeper maturity that separates her from the pack of artists of the genre. In person, her songs fit together like different shades of a painting, some shadowy and some bright. McLamb’s discography is well-represented by the grainy image of a candle illuminating an inky background that she uses to promote her headlining shows. I loved my Eliza McLamb concert experience, so I can confidently recommend to everyone who didn’t make it to find tickets to see her ASAP—she’s headlining Portland, Seattle, and Vancouver this spring. We can only hope that she returns to DC soon!