The last time I saw Mitski (in 2016, not long after the release of her break-out album Puberty 2), she played the guitar. This time around, Mitski performed without an instrument, leaving the guitar to one of the three members of her backing band. I believe there is an upside and a downside to this.
The upside is that Mitski is able to move about more freely on stage, and the way she moves really is one of the best things about her performance. There’s nothing conventionally ‘showman-like’ about the way she flails around, or storms up and down the stage, or appears – at various points throughout the show – to play the part of a mime artist. In fact, you could easily deride these stage antics as uncomfortable, awkward and weird. But it’s the confidence with which she acts out these unusual routines that make it work.
We see a performer embracing her inelegancies and proudly showing them off to the world, totally without a hint of shame. It seems very fitting when considering the lyrical content of Mitski’s music, which often deals with themes of anxiety and isolation. These themes, however, are always underpinned with a strong sentiment of striving for self-love, self-confidence, and self-sufficiency. It isn’t hard to see why she’s gained a reputation as one of the current most empowering musicians.
Even though I did say that Mitski didn’t play guitar at this gig, this isn’t entirely true. She did, in fact, equip her weapon of choice for Puberty 2′s two-minute rager ‘My Body’s Made of Crushed Little Stars’, and it portrayed perhaps the most intense channelling of emotion for the whole show. For this song her impassioned howling and the ferocious noise coming from her instrument coalesce into a fiery harmony.
I think this illustrates why the overall lack of Mitski-on-guitar was slightly disappointing for me. For a songwriter who evidently pours so much of her personality into her music, it kind of seems like a wrongful separation to have someone else play the bulk of the guitar for the show. It’s as if something’s been stolen.
Nonetheless, there’s little to criticise in the show Mitski and her band put on when taken as a whole. Despite the rave reviews her latest album Be the Cowboy (which noticeably took a more subdued musical direction when compared with Mitski’s previous work) received, the crowd seemed more receptive to the perhaps more familiar material from Bury Me at Makeout Creek and Puberty 2, of which the setlist features a healthy sprinkling.
‘Francis Forever’ and ‘Townie’ are set highlights, as is (unsurprisingly) identity-crisis anthem ‘Your Best American Girl’. In a genre with precious few high-profile POC artists, and not a proportionate number of high-profile female artists either, ‘Your Best American Girl’ may well go down as one of indie-rock’s best ever expressions of the feeling of being an outsider and struggling to fit in. Considering indie-rock’s obsession with ‘outsider music’, that really is quite an achievement.