Mitski performed a sold-out show at Ram’s Head Live! on Friday, April 19 to a wildly receptive crowd. At the venue, listeners filled every inch of the floor and the balconies, soaking up every moment of the performance. The crowd was pulsing with energy; There was rarely a moment when people weren’t screaming or singing along to the music. Mitski herself, on the other hand, was strikingly reticent, performing alongside her band members and, among other items, a simple white desk and a chair. As the night went on, however, I found these to be among the least surprising elements of one of the most breathtaking, unique shows I’d ever seen.
This was the second time Mitski came to the Baltimore-Washington Metropolitan area after performing at the 9:30 Club close to downtown Washington, D.C. in November 2018.
Since releasing her first album in 2012, Lush, Mitski has opened for artists like Lorde and toured alongside indie-rock giants Pixies, emerging at the forefront of a new generation of indie-rock artists that includes acts like Snail Mail, Japanese Breakfast and Soccer Mommy.
Having been a long-time admirer of Mitski’s music and having seen Japanese Breakfast at the 9:30 Club and Baltimore Soundstage myself, I planned to get tickets for Mitski’s show at Ram’s Head Live! early in the semester, only to discover that they had sold out. Most of the other venues listed on her 2019 tour schedule have also completely sold out. Luckily, someone offered to sell me two tickets only a few days before the show.
The opener, Jay Som, gave a short but well-balanced performance that alternated between some of her faster and slower songs. Thumbing her base, Jay Som crooned in soft tones that blended well with the rest of the band. The inclusion of an electric violin in the middle of the set gave the performance a pleasant freshness without sounding too shrill or piercing.
Once Jay Som finished and left the stage, the crew began to set up Mitski’s band equipment, as well as the white desk and chair, at the center of the stage. After waiting for around 30 minutes, Mitski’s band finally appeared on stage to deafening applause.
As the peculiar guitar riff starting off “Goodbye, My Danish Sweetheart” from her second album, Retired from Sad, New Career in Business, burst from the speakers, Mitski emerged from the side of the stage, singing as she slowly walked towards the center.
Once she seated herself at the desk and the recognizable pulsing of synthesizers in her song “Why Didn’t You Stop Me?” started to play, the real show began. The hyperactive stage lights twirling behind the band contributed to a dizzying, almost synesthetic effect that paired well with the nervous energy of the song.
“I know that I ended it, but / why won’t you chase after me? / You know me better than I do / so / why didn’t you stop me? / Why didn’t you stop me? / And paint it over?” she sang.
By far the most interesting part of the show was the way Mitski carried herself on stage. She manipulated her arms and legs to the music, sometimes swinging her arms in wild concentric motion, pacing around the table or making hand gestures to the rhythm of the music. With respect to the word “manipulated,” I mean that in every sense of the word — it seemed as if her body was a mechanical instrument being guided by a ventriloquist, especially in the way her limbs maintained their calculated trajectories.
Mitski’s stage presence was a stark contrast to the booming resonance of her voice and her music that, at its heart, is so relentlessly raw, open and passionate.
Mitski even began to shift the desks and chairs out of place in later songs, sometimes tipping them over. She made full use of these arrangements, however, sometimes standing on top of them to appear taller or hiding herself behind the desk as it laid on its side. At one point, she grabbed hold of the microphone stand to the side of the stage, and, holding it like a rifle, aimed it at the audience.
The visual aspect of her performance wasn’t quite reminiscent of dance or musical theatre; It was more along the lines of performance art — vague in its intentions, visceral in its presentation and unconventional in its approach.
I was also impressed by her stamina. The concert was a whirlwind of activity amounting to about an hour and 30 minutes, with almost no breaks between songs.
Despite this, the show ended on a quieter note. During the third-to-last song, she played “A Burning Hill” from her album Puberty 2, followed by “Two Slow Dancers” from her most recent album Be the Cowboy.
The only two people on stage at that point were Mitski, with her acoustic guitar, and the keyboard player. The arrangement was fitting, as the lyrics in “Two Slow Dancers” depict an aged couple dancing in an old school gymnasium as the night is dying down.
“But we’re two slow dancers, last ones out / We’re two slow dancers, last ones out / Two slow dancers, last ones out,” she sang.
As a final encore, she brought the entire band on stage to play a song called “Carry Me Out,” which delivered a slow, majestic close to the emotional rollercoaster of a show.
Mitski’s concert at Ram’s Head Live! reminded me why I relish live performances — seeing artists in person offers something so much more than just listening to an album passively on a phone.
Mitski reminded me that concerts bring an intimacy and visual engagement to the music that can’t be reproduced anywhere else, and she surpassed expectations on both fronts.