On October 3, Burlington’s Higher Ground saw the first show of the fall leg of Ethel Cain’s “Blood Stained Blonde” tour. Ethel Cain is the musical project of Hayden Silas Anhedönia, who performs as the character of the same name. Joining Anhedönia on stage in Burlington were Bryan De Leon, Colyer, and Matthew Tomasi, the latter of whom also opened the show with his own project 9 Million.
Anhedönia surprised the crowd with an early appearance during 9 Million’s opening set, drawing screams of excitement from fans. The energy in the room became frenetic as the crowd waited for Anhedönia’s reappearance, which came with smiles, waves, and her opening song: “Strangers,” off of 2022’s Preacher’s Daughter. Anhedönia proceeded to play through many of that album’s most beloved songs: “A House in Nebraska” came next, followed by “American Teenager,” “Family Tree,” “Hard Times,” “Thoroughfare,” “Gibson Girl,” and “Sun Bleached Flies.” In fact, the only departure from the world of Preacher’s Daughter came at the end of the night, when Anhedönia bounded back onto the stage for her encore. “Y’all know we couldn’t leave without doing ‘Crush,’” she announced, jumping into one of her most popular songs from 2021’s Inbred.
Anhedönia seems well aware of the intense connection that her fans feel to her, and she spent much of the show on the edge of the stage, holding audience members’ hands. At one point, after inquiring how many audience members were wearing camo, Anhedönia accepted and donned a camo hat and jacket from fans, tossing them back after a few songs. The encore saw Anhedönia enter the crowd, leaning over the barricade to hold audience member’s faces and hands as they sang back to her with wide eyes. Anhedönia was a graceful and commanding presence onstage, her vocals seemingly effortless and undeniably breathtaking.
Part of the appeal of Ethel Cain as a character is the tension between the hyperspecificity of Cain’s fictional life with the universality of the impact that story has on her listeners. Anhedönia has crafted an incredibly detailed storyline for her character, and the lyrics of her songs reflect that. It’s easy to get drawn into the world of Ethel Cain, dusty and dimly lit, full of references to a Southern childhood rife with tragedy and religion. But in the minutiae of that world, listeners find themselves.
Maybe it’s the heart-wrenching straightforwardness of lyrics like “It hurts to miss you / but it’s worse to know / that I’m the reason you won’t come home,” from “A House In Nebraska,” or the catharsis of singing along to “If it’s meant to be then it will be / I forgive it all as it comes back to me,” from “Sun Bleached Flies.” Maybe it’s the freedom that listeners find in escaping into an imaginary world, inhabiting a fictional space. Regardless of the reason, Ethel Cain’s cult following is impossible to deny, and remarkable to witness. And her live performance is not one to miss.