Mitski – Trinity Centre, Bristol, 25.09.18
We are perched on the edge of our stools in Best Kebab*, on Old Market Street. It is late afternoon, following a lovely drive that saw the aux cable hotly contested for, and Bristol’s spires wave to us from the window as the sun sets below.
It’s four of us, but we’re not alone in this locale. In fact, you can determine who else has Mitski in their Tuesday night schedule just by their order: the falafels, with pitta and spicy sauce. We tuck into ours with the vigour of four people whose non-supermarket falafel options have been long closed, and for whose local kebab offers only meat with the appearance and texture of something yet to kick the bucket.
But, Mitski > falafels. It’s a priority we have to remind ourselves of.
The support, Eera, sound a bit like My Bloody Valentine, are well received by all and leave amicably. When Mitski and her band enter the stage the place erupts. Without a word spoken – for none are necessary – her command of attention is so spellbinding, her presence so mesmeric I cannot help thinking of the filing cabinet for rock’s legendary frontpeople, the Iggy Pops and Brett Andersons of the world; boring names to bandy about but spiritually present, no doubt. Mitski displays a similar androgyny – not to be mistaken for feminine masculinity, because the performance is effectively genderless. The ultimate comparison would be Patti Smith, whose own emergence must have wrung with the same vitality, the same innovation, and inspired the same unanimous desire to, should it come to it, leap in front of a flying bullet to spare the artist.
The case is there to be made that with her latest album out now, Mitski is the Patti Smith of 2018. Smith transformed guitar music’s female voice – aurally and in terms of what people with their eyes pointing towards their skulls considered acceptable for women to sing about. Horses removes sex from the equation. Mitski is the same, hyperbole forgiving – franker, funnier, and demonstrating evolution from an instrumental standpoint. Her lyrics frequently align with Smith’s whimsical imagery, generally grounded in that universal keynote of lovelorn despair. The wheel will never need reinventing, that’s the reason it works.
There’s a silence and then ‘Remember My Name’ commences the set, the opening riff leaving first-degree burns on thick skin. The running order is a generous equilibrium of fan favourites and tracks from the new EP, Be the Cowboy. Instantly one thing becomes apparent: the studio versions of these songs, powerful as they are, don’t nearly do justice the weight and oomph they carry in concert. Without the restraint of production, the drums instil a tribal tempo; the lead guitar squeals like Cthulhu, unshackled from the sea bed.
Everyone is engaged, eye contact made with all corners of the room. The audience hang on Mitski’s precise delivery of every line and elegant swivel of a hand. Each balletic, arching movement is met with rapturous approval. On ‘Francis Forever’ Mitski paces at increasing speed, the stage becoming her prop, the scene for a narrative set somewhere she literally owns. Not once does her voice lose traction. Tracks aren’t played but performed.
Standouts on the night include ‘Washing Machine Heart’ (starring Mitski as the washing machine), the cinematic ‘Geyser’, ‘A Pearl’ (a song for army dreamers), ‘Dan the Dancer’ in its gangling glory, and the thunderous, unsurpassable cattle prod that is ‘Drunk Walk Home’. Lyrics enter the brain like a missile might enter the Pentagon: “Your mother wouldn’t approve of how my mother raised me / But I do, I think I do” (‘Your Best American Girl’); “I call you to see you again / So I can win and this can finally end / … And you say ‘hello’ / And I lose” (‘Lonesome Love’). The melodies themselves are contagious, delivered with coy Morrissean authority, as are the best.
A heart of granite would prevent only the dreadfully cynical from being swept along by the aura Mitski transmits. Bashful charm fills the interval between songs perfectly, at one point we, the audience, were thanked for facilitating her dream. Few artists are as capable of moving their following to self-reflection as Mitski; this was truly our response afterwards, and I think for a lot of people it was the same, a collective daze. She has (and is) a gift to be thankful for.
It’s poignant that when the set ends – ‘Two Slow Dancers’, “last ones out” – the band depart and the lights go up, we find ourselves stood in the nave of an old, repurposed church. I’m not religious, but I think I have faith in just about everything Mitski sings and does.
* Their falafels were incredible.