The cloudy weather over San Francisco’s Sigmund Stern Grove seemed ready for a blissfully somber Mitski performance on Sunday afternoon. The stage was set for what many fans likely expected from the concert: the singer’s heartbreak-laden lyrics performed over her brilliant, genre-bending instrumentals.
Mitski herself, however, seemed to have different ideas in mind. Forced by the weather to ditch her planned outfit for the day — “I would rather be comfortable than look special,” she said — the New York-based artist proceeded to lead an all-out rock performance on the outdoor stage.
Central to Mitski’s act was a white desk that served as a sort of overarching prop in much of the performer’s choreography. Mitski sat in the chair behind the desk, as one would expect — but she also sat on top of the desk, lay down on the desk, stood on the desk, turned the desk on its side. She even got on all fours and lifted her leg atop the desk to mimic a dog urinating during “I Bet on Losing Dogs.” The performance was practically a duet between Mitski and the desk.
Furniture aside, Mitski’s dancing was dramatically varied, sometimes airy and graceful, other times grounded and emotional. This variety in moods lent a sense of spontaneity to the concert that made it all the more entertaining to watch.
The music that Mitski played shared that spontaneous quality, as the instrumentals in many of the performed songs were altered significantly from their recorded counterparts. At times, these changes were welcome, as they both kept the songs fresh and made them better suited for a live performance.
During “Francis Forever,” for example, injections of distortion from the synth were coupled with faster, punchier drums, turning the sad, pensive song into an up-tempo dance tune. “Thursday Girl” was electrified by its solid instrumental backing in a similar fashion.
In other songs, though, the tweaks hindered the performance. In the absence of its signature droning synths in the background, early hit “First Love / Late Spring” felt somewhat lacking in energy.
But although “First Love / Late Spring” fell somewhat flat in its instrumentals, Mitski more than compensated for it with her vocals and choreography. She nervously paced in circles around the desk as she lyrically dwelled over her distress: “So please, hurry, leave me, I can’t sleep / Please don’t say you love me.”
Even in an outdoor venue, Mitski’s voice somehow sounded even better live than it does in her recorded music. The angelic high notes that she belted out so effortlessly in “Liquid Smooth,” a song from her first album Lush, made its performance one of the highlights of the set. Mitski spoke the lyrics of the verses in “Townie,” giving the song, one of her most upbeat tracks, a rawer quality.
Perhaps surprised by the more-intense-than-expected nature of Mitski’s set, the crowd — which consisted mainly of teens and 20-somethings, with a remarkably large amount of dyed hair — often seemed rather distant and out of touch with what was happening onstage. But by the time the artist performed “Nobody,” the biggest hit from her latest album Be the Cowboy, the audience was amped up and ready to rock.
After a rendition of “Happy” that remained energetic despite its notable lack of a saxophone solo, the desk was removed from the stage. Mitski disappeared for a moment as well, only to return with a guitar for the first song of her encore, “A Burning Hill.” Though the guitar was ditched for the remainder of the encore, the artist maintained a more acoustic, low-key energy until the end of the show — it seemed she was finally giving the audience a bit of what it came for.
As Mitski wrapped up her performance of “I Will” toward the middle of her set, she stood on the desk with arms extended at her sides; the crowd worshipped its prophet during one of her last sermons in the foreseeable future. And as she thanked audience members during her last song, “Carry Me Out,” and proceeded to carry herself out of the venue, the air was filled with hope that her hiatus will be a short one.