Singer-songwriter Mitski played at the 9:30 Club on the D.C. leg of her Be The Cowboy tour on Nov. 16. In the newly freezing cold weather, my friends and I joined the line that snaked for blocks around the club and missed out on the electro-folk opener The Overcoats, but the sold-out show still mounted traffic outside the venue well into the night as the young crowd packed inside. It had been sold out for months, and I managed my tickets from a re-seller for about double the original price. The rest of the dates on her fall tour sold out just as quickly; Mitski could’ve easily played a place twice this size. But it’s not surprising she didn’t. Inside, the venue was intimate.
Mitski’s songs are just that: intimate. Be The Cowboy is song after confessional song of Mitski bearing her pain in life and love. Her vulnerability is infectious. You listen to Mitski when you want to wallow in your own loneliness, feel understood, lean into your self-deprecation and just have an honest cry about the complications of being a social creature. Knowing how emotionally evocative the songs can be, I was hesitant to buy tickets to the show, but somehow she manages to make her emotional music danceable. The album prominently features synthesizers and upbeat melodies that satisfy in a different way than the lyrics do. The chord progressions always resolve generously and are often almost anthemic. They’re the kind of melodies that stick in your brain; it’s pop music for sad people.
Spilled over with smoke from a fog machine, the venue was packed with a crowd of buzzing 20-somthings eagerly waiting for the show to start. Some fans wore cowboy hats and tasseled outfits, punnily obeying Mitski’s instruction to Be The Cowboy. When the lights dimmed and Mitski took the stage with her four-piece band, cries of adoration filled the room. “I love you mom!” someone screamed. As she started to sing, the melancholy lyrics were in the forefront. It was, as expected, a strange experience standing shoulder to shoulder with strangers and feeling the loneliness of the world.
Mitski seemed to float into her own world, hitting song after song from Be The Cowboy. The stage was sparse as a backdrop played visuals of calm yet striking images that cast a soft neon hue on the band members: an overhead shot of a suburb, fire burning in the distance, raindrops falling. Mitski stood in the center, bright lights illuminating only her and her lightly choreographed interpretive dances. The moves felt rehearsed, yet often understated, like the kind of unskilled motions you’d come up with in your bedroom: hand dancing and fluid but simple movements. For some songs, Mitski moved through her dancing, and for others, she stood lock-kneed and gazed off into the lights overhead. Occasionally, the dances would become chaotic with the rock progressions, and she’d fall to the floor, jump into the air or pace around the stage. It often felt like something like performance art, trying to demonstrate the repetitive nature of lonely thoughts.
After her captivating lyrics, Mitski’s voice is her next great virtuosic strength. The band behind her grew nearly invisible as Mitski’s voice cut through the room. I almost forgot to appreciate the seamlessness of the performance, as it felt so effortless and sounded near identical to the recorded album. Mitski flips between her lower and upper register with ease and delivers her words with wounded emotion. And despite the choreography, she never once ran out of breath. It was, to give her deserved credit, quite masterful.
Between songs from Be The Cowboy, Mitski also played crowd-pleasers from her earlier albums, and the crowd sang along to “Happy,” “Your Best American Girl” and “Fireworks.” The disco-modulating single off of Be The Cowboy, “Nobody,” had the audience dancing joyfully. She ended her set with “Drunk Walk Home.” The rest of the band left the stage, and Mitski returned alone with “Two Slow Dancers” in the encore.
Between songs, Mitski broke out of the performance and addressed the audience with a charming humbleness. She told a story about how she accidentally ended up at a lesbian meet-and-greet in her hotel lobby, and they asked her if she was okay, and if she’d like to join the group.
“I guess I’m someone who radiates loneliness,” she said jokingly.
As she grows more popular and influential, it’ll be interesting to see how her music evolves after Be The Cowboy.