Mitski (photo: Robert Alleyne)
The first time I saw Mitski belt straight into her guitar strings was two years ago, during a shattering Audiotree Live Session I devoured through my computer screen. The last time was on Thursday, at the Fillmore, as Mitski finished her sold-out show with a solo rendition of “Class of 2013.” It’s a compelling image — Mitski, with her guitar flung into the air and pressed against her cheek, her face turned into its strings, which turn towards a shrill microphone — and one that I find relevant because of both its strength and its efficacy. If she wanted to, Mitski could find more obtuse ways of achieving the feedback effect she gets from this vocal trick, just as she could find more embellished ways of portraying the acute emotion within the song’s lyrics. But Mitski, in both recordings and performances, doesn’t exaggerate or garnish — she doesn’t need to.
Things have changed for Mitski since 2015; her latest album, Puberty 2, was met with international acclaim and endless tour dates, as well as a growing and dedicated fan base fully equipped to shout any and all of Mitski’s lyrics back to her onstage. Her musical focus has shifted slightly, too — further from the looping piano melodies of early albums and towards textured guitar riffs, throbbing beats, and bass shreds.
But lyrically, Mitski’s interest in self-embodiment, communication, and the precarious pursuit of art is strung throughout her discography. In many ways, Puberty 2 continued themes and musical aesthetics that Mitski had been developing in all three of her previous albums. Her Fillmore performance was a triumphant display of this development, and a gorgeous show of the artist's careful lyrical and musical arrangements. Remarkably, though Mitski’s lyrics edge towards drama, they never tip into the melodramatic. “My Body’s Made of Crushed Little Stars,” a standout on the album, is a perfect example of this: While the song takes on themes of isolation, internalized pressure, and self-doubt, it delivers those themes irreverently, with frenzied guitar and a casually desperate vocal performance.
Mitski was supported on Thursday by Kadhja Bonet and Steady Holiday, whose performance marked the first in San Francisco since their latest EP, Terror, was released. Like Mitski, Dre Babinski of Steady Holiday is classically trained, and like Mitski that training informs her music and performance. As the notes of the violin, her first instrument, Babinski’s music is exacting and haunted — shadowy, throbbing beats provide the foundation for Babinski’s voice, which flits through and over layered melodies.
On Thursday, Babinski played a solo set drawing from both Terror and 2016’s Under the Influence. Switching fluidly between instruments, Babinski built her songs onstage. It was remarkable to see, though not surprising — before her solo career as Steady Holiday began to take off in 2016, Babinski was already an established musician, accompanying other artists with her varied instrumentals.
If Mitski’s music is interested in embodiment, both emotional and physical, Steady Holiday takes issue with perception — in all its variance and complication. “Imitation makes me feel like a lunatic,” Babinksi sings on the title track “Under the Influence.” On her newest EP, the stakes are even higher; on “Terror,” the EP’s first single, fear of an exhausting and confusing world drives Babinski’s narrator to blame an unnamed other. This theme of bewildered finger-pointing is emphasized in the wonderfully disgusting video for the song, in which a hand-built monster puppet “terrorizes” a suburban house and its inhabitant. The song (and EP) has been billed as being about xenophobia, and while I think in the current social atmosphere that makes sense, it’s also a limiting description. What makes Steady Holiday’s “Terror EP” fantastic is its attention to the exhaustive and personal reasons people fear and frustrate. When capitalism and other power structures drain workers of resources, in other words, it limits their empathetic ability to welcome change.
Also supporting Mitski and Steady Holiday was Kadhja Bonet, a Los Angeles artist influenced by classical and folk music. Like Mitski and Babinksi, Bonet writes and arranges her music herself. Vocally, too, Bonet was a good match for the rest of the lineup — her crooning voice made something of a mid-point between Babinski’s sweet and creeping melodies and Mitski’s symphonic bursts of song.
It was an emotional night for all, and throughout the show tears painted faces in the crowd. Despite the Fillmore’s large size, the atmosphere was cozy. It seemed as though fans had rounded up whole groups of friends to support Mitski and co., and that even those who may not frequent SF’s live music scene had made it out for the night. In the moments leading up to Mitski’s performance, one of my friends took out her phone to message contacts in an Asian American Facebook group about the night. And at one point during Mitski’s set, an impassioned fan yelled “fuck me up!” towards the stage — only to be recognized by a friend across the venue, who weaved their way through the crowd for an embrace. Mitski, too, was emotional, vocalizing disbelief at her opportunity to play at the Fillmore, and relaying stories of less fortunate gigs to put this show — and her much deserved success — in perspective.
On her first tour, Mitski said, when she was “still a baby,” she played in a dive bar outside of Boston — to a drunken old couple and a “local amateur baseball team that had just lost.” At yet another dive bar, this one in New York City, Mitski played to an even smaller crowd. “There were three drunk old men who all looked like Charles Bukowski,” Mitski explained, “and an old coked-up woman,” who, during Mitski’s set, yelled at the artist: "Kick me in the face!"
Despite aggressive audiences and bleak locales, “I love all of those experiences,” Mitski said, “because they led me right here.”
These days I rarely find myself dreading a show’s end; chronic pain makes it difficult for me to stand more than two hours, and like most young and working people, there is a limit to the amount of time I can enjoy myself without the crushing guilt of lost “productivity” setting in (sad, OK). But, basking in Mitski’s glow, I felt weightless. The joy of seeing an artist I genuinely love and believe in succeed was inspiring, as was the joy of seeing chosen family gather together for the show. Mitski’s career is far from over, but her performance still felt like a fully realized vision. Seeing her music, both new and old, take flight onstage only underlines how innovative it is.
By the time that Mitski took the stage for her last three songs, I felt weepy, like I had seen a childhood friend hit a major milestone, or been made privy to an emotional secret. Mitski is magical, not because her music is intangible, but because it is expertly crafted and deftly delivered; because it is resonant and interesting; because it makes tension and glory out of lived moments. And Mitski, to her credit, is just as devoted to her audience as they are to her. At the end of the night, the last crashing notes of “Class of 2013” glittering in the air, Mitski turned to the crowd. “Thank you for listening,” she said, “and for making all my dreams come true.”