Mitski captivates Warfield audience with dreamlike vocals, idiosyncratic dance moves

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Doug Smith/Staff

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Mitski’s show Saturday night at The Warfield in San Francisco was a perfect reflection of her musical ethos — her unabashed refusal to hide her personality while performing made for an intimate yet distant experience that mesmerized her die-hard audience.

Her opener, the Overcoats, is a New York electro-pop duo that largely went unnoticed as the crowd impatiently awaited the headliner. The two played a mishmash of muted songs that admittedly sounded vibey and ambient in the moment but failed to leave a strong overall impression.

Besides the talented drummer, whose chops got some people moving, this opening set left much to be desired as the majority of concertgoers idly awaited its conclusion. One cover of “Imagine” by John Lennon and one crowd-supported rendition of “Happy Birthday” later, the Overcoats left the stage as quickly as they had come on.

After a brief interlude, Mitski graced the stage with her robotlike omniscience. Opening song “I Need Someone to Remember Me,” from her acclaimed 2018 album Be the Cowboy, successfully set the show’s harrowing yet exuberant tone.

The headliner employed a peculiar performance style; for much of the show, Mitski simply stood in place and swayed her arms and body in a simultaneously random and mechanical manner. Channeling her inner Lorde, Mitski’s arms flailed with every drum loop as she sang her records to perfection. The way she slowly eked out these seemingly programmed dance moves engaged the crowd in a way that many contemporary artists fail to achieve in their live shows.

As the show progressed, its energy became increasingly weird and frenetic. Mitski performed 90-degree turns and toe touches between drum beats during one song and got on the floor, violently punching the air during another.

The crowd was mostly composed of courteous millennials rather than Generation Z delinquents — where Brockhampton concertgoers pack into intimate venues like sardines, those at The Warfield last Saturday were respectfully distributed throughout the theater. The Warfield was a perfect venue for a Mitski concert because the show’s vibe allowed its patrons on the floor and those in the balcony to come together as one.

As Mitski moved through material old and new from her five-album discography, diehard fans from the floor and balcony alike sang along to every word as the prolific artist nailed every note of every song she chose to perform. Highlights such as the confessional tracks “Washing Machine Heart” from Be the Cowboy, “I Don’t Smoke” from Bury Me at Makeout Creek and “Me and My Husband” from Be the Cowboy sounded true to their studio counterparts, with Mitski’s hypnotic voice at the forefront.

Her music translates well to live performance — the lush instrumentation provided by Mitski’s backing band empowered and at some points even engulfed her vocals. Although she is pigeonholed into the indie-rock genre, Mitski’s music shows incredible range, from punk to acoustic to typical 2010s indie rock — she moved seamlessly through these styles during her set.

This crisp, varied sound was reinforced by a subtle yet amazing lighting and visual setup. The stage lighting itself acted as a mood ring — outright sad songs such as “A Pearl” were backdropped by crushing blue lights, while the sardonic “Me and My Husband” was supported by incisive red lights. This combined with diverse, powerful visuals ranging from grayscale close-ups of an eye to flyovers of vast expanses of nature to slices of everyday city life — all the imagery evoked a sense of wonder, adding to the often escapist nature of Mitski’s lyrics.

Where other artists introduce songs and attempt to transition between tracks, Mitski expected her band and crowd to be as dialed into her music as she was — she started each song as soon as the previous one ended. Toward the show’s closing, one interlude between songs saw Mitski shout out friends in the crowd as well as the purported owner of the Mitski Instagram fan account. Aside from this, Mitski seemed lost in her own universe — in the best way possible.

Justin Sidhu covers music. Contact him at [email protected].