Mitski began her set Thursday at The Fillmore in San Francisco buried silently beneath the sound of drums. She began to gently excavate her way out of the noise with the opening notes of “Dan the Dancer” before allowing her voice to soar through the freshly built tunnels of melody.
Her voice continued to rise as she introduced “Francis Forever.” By the time the chorus came around the second time, she had completely unearthed herself. “I don’t think I could stand to be where you don’t see me,” she sang as she gently tossed her head back, a tiny gesture that was as carefree as it was evocative of the sum of every heartbreak that occupied the room, even the most minuscule and the most long forgotten.
After this initial upward trajectory, Mitski’s voice refused to sink back to the ground or be buried under the noise of percussion. Even when her voice ceased to soar with a pointed upward trajectory, it remained floating in space, sometimes batting its wings to produce a gentle drama, sometimes simply levitating and sometimes twisting itself into the the crevices left between the sweet notes of Mitski’s bass.
As carefully crafted and gently warm as Mitski’s set was, it wasn’t without its moments of outright humour. Take her anecdotes about the worst shows she’s played, for example. “I decided that it was time to put myself through performance bootcamp,” Mitski said. “I told myself that I had to play at a shitty dive bar every other night.” Mitski then delved into the stories of her most nightmarishly hilarious performances.
From a dive bar filled with players from an amateur baseball league to another that was empty save for one “coked-up woman” — who, halfway through the set, yelled “kick me in the face” to Mitski — and even to a completely empty show that the venue’s sound engineer derived too much secondhand embarrassment from to see to completion, the stories that Mitski was now sharing with a laugh to a sold-out venue couldn’t have seemed further from her current reality.
As she neared the end of her set, Mitski dismissed her drummer and guitarist from the stage. “I like to finish sets alone, because I started out alone, and I like to remind myself that I have myself,” she explained.
The first song Mitski played on her own was “A Burning Hill,” the short and bittersweet closing track of Puberty 2. Mitski’s vocals and instrumentals became decidedly more gentle and folded over gently into one another. The song’s rich introversion took on a body of its own and filled the stage and the venue with a palpable glow. It was easy to forget that that stage was actually emptier than it had been just minutes before. For a moment, the concept of loneliness ceased to exist entirely.
Mitski’s solo set continued to bloom from gentle tenderness to a controlled whirlwind of pure sound and genuine feeling. She paused for a moment after building up to a climax to allow a rapid crystallization of the sentiment that had been flowing so forcefully just moments before. “Thank you for coming out and listening and making my dreams come true,” she told the audience, directly acknowledging how far she’d come from the New York dive bars that she’d spent the beginning of her show joking about.
Mitski finished surrounded by stillness and awe. There was none of the proud singing along that had accompanied her during the first half of the show, nor was there any of the gentle swaying or outright dancing that had come and faded away over and over again throughout the night. The full force of the heartbreaking intimacy of Mitski’s performance revealed itself in the small quivers in her voice as she sang “Last Words of a Shooting Star” as she gazed lovingly into her guitar and stretched her voice gently forward, pushing into the final moments of her performance.
Sannidhi Shukla covers music. Contact her at [email protected].