SAN FRANCISCO — On a Sunday afternoon when the sun refused to peek out from above the fog, Mitski brought a dramatic performance to the Stern Grove Festival that at times fit right in alongside the breezy atmosphere and at others overtook it with thundering intensity.
Her band took the stage and kicked into the opening chords of 2013 song “Goodbye, My Danish Sweetheart” while she sauntered to the side, as if watching like everyone else. After Mitski began to sing, she made her way to a white writing desk and chair combo at the middle of the stage and sat down behind the desk. The desk was a newer addition to her art-pop production; her last time through the Bay Area, in 2018, the chair was the chief production piece. The song built up quickly and she was off and running.
“Why Didn’t You Stop Me,” from 2018 album Be The Cowboy, followed. While the album version of the song relies heavily on synths and electronica, it came across as grungy on stage. During the following “Old Friend,” Mitski climbed atop the writing desk. She sang while either lying still or contorting her body, as if trying to get comfortable. At the end of the song, she rolled off the desk and addressed the crowd to say that she had an outfit planned for the show but decided against wearing it because of the chilly weather.
“I’d rather feel comfortable than special,” she said before returning to her desk, where she would remain, in various states, for the majority of the performance. Sometimes she would be on her stomach; others on her back, bicycling her legs. She and her band went on to perform several songs like the uptempo “I Will;” “I Don’t Smoke,” where she sang softly above the distorted guitar and synth; and “First Love / Late Spring.” During the latter song she hopped down from the table and walked laps around it. Next, she flipped the table on one end, shaking it by its legs.
The Bo-Diddley-beat-driven “Townie,” with it’s reverb-laden and messy arrangement, was a show highlight. The conflicting emotions of the older track remained as fresh as they were when she first wrote it. Then during “Nobody,” Be The Cowboy‘s signature track, Mitski straddled the chair, her back to the audience. Following the meditative “Thursday Girl,” and “Drunk Walk Home,” during which she did her best robot dancing, Mitski flipped the desk over on its side.
Knowing the narrative of her recent releases, one could make an educated guess about her artistic intent. Still, the often-frenetic performance left plenty of room for interpretation.
Eventually the furniture was taken away, and Mitski retrieved a blue guitar from behind the stage to play “A Burning Hill” alone, alternating between a a few sparsely picked notes. She returned the guitar and came back out with her keyboardist. The two performed “Two Slow Dancers” before the rest of the band returned to close with the slow-burning “Carry Me Out.” Only a few stray conversations could be heard above the meditative first half of the song, but once Mitski’s band kicked in for the conclusion, the crescendo quickly riled up the packed park.
Oakland’s Madeline Kenney and her band opened the concert with a short set of wonderfully off-kilter pop songs. “Perfect Shapes” featured cascading woodblock percussion and its mellow mood fit the fog-drenched ambiance of the early afternoon. “The Flavor of the Fruit Tree” came off as jazzy with its modulated synths. “Cut Me Off” and “Your Art,” both breezy bedroom pop numbers, rounded out the latter half of the set.
Follow editor Roman Gokhman at Twitter.com/RomiTheWriter.