The concert poster for Perfume Genius’ triumphant return to live performance at the Henry Miller Library in Big Sur features a drawing from the cover of a book by the library’s namesake, “Big Sur and the Oranges of Hieronymus Bosch.” Predictably, the book’s narrative is tightly bound to its setting, which Miller writes about in lucid detail, weaving together personal anecdotes to produce a portrait of a place situated at the fringes of the divine and the banal, suspended in liminal space. Sitting on the grass in front of the library, fragments of Miller’s imagining of Big Sur are refracted through Perfume Genius’ ethereal vocals and sumptuous instrumentation, coalescing into a kaleidoscopic post-quarantine live experience.
Hand Habits’ Meg Duffy opened the evening with a short set consisting primarily of songs off their 2019 LP Placeholder. Duffy’s lyricism is poignant and unguarded, cementing their place as an undeniably adept singer-songwriter. Following the performance of the track “Placeholder,” Duffy remarked on the weird vibe that inevitably comes with performing in the wake of COVID-19. “I talked to my therapist about this,” Duffy joked. Hand Habits concluded with “4th of July,” the lead single off their 2021 EP, Dirt. Through lyrics such as “Don’t cry, demolition baby” and “I see you diggin’ a foundation/ Waiting for the world to go by,” the track serves as an exploration of the symbiosis of destruction and rebirth — an apt tone-setter for the evening.
Mike Hadreas, recording music under the moniker Perfume Genius, released his fifth studio album, Set My Heart on Fire Immediately, last May to much critical acclaim. The album has been lauded as Hadreas’ most ambitious record, combining his signature eclectic musicality with delicate lyrics driven by his experiences cultivating connections with oneself and with others. Perhaps somewhat ironically, given the events of the past year, the record interrogates how humans relate to one another physically.
This emphasis on physicality is most evident on the swelling, string-heavy anthem “Your Body Changes Everything,” the track with which Hadreas took the stage Friday evening. Throughout the duration of the 17-song set, Hadreas’ vocals bent mesmerizingly between extremes. The dreamy, gossamer falsetto of tracks such as “Jason” and “Fool” contrasted with the crashing guitar intro of the track “Describe” or the mounting baroque instrumental of “Nothing at All,” producing an elevated sonic experience that reflected and enhanced the Big Sur setting.
Much of the evening’s set consisted of tracks off Set My Heart on Fire Immediately, though Hadreas took care to include material from the rest of his discography, including the hits “Slip Away,” “Otherside,” and “Queen,” the concert’s closer. “On the Floor” was a highlight with its pulsating thrums and lyrics about navigating infatuation and feelings of entrapment within a relationship. The track is wrought with an urgency and intimacy that are especially conducive to live performance. Hadreas’ impassioned lyric “I cross out his name on the page,” each word punctuated by drum beats, feels all the more impactful when experienced live in concert.
Hadreas closed out the initial set with the climatically anticlimactic track “Nothing at All,” which Hadreas has described as “veering between everything matters or nothing does.” A favorite track among fans, “Queen” was the final song played Friday night, an exuberant note to end on. “No family is safe/ When I sashay,” Hadreas sang before jaunting off stage and into the redwoods.
In an interview with Jia Tolentino for The New Yorker last year, Hadreas expressed his hope that his music will invoke in people a sense of shared community amid personal and political strife, stating: “There’s something about sharing any sensation, even the deepest bleakness, that makes it less bleak.” In a seemingly perpetually confused post-quarantine landscape, Hadreas’ assiduous efforts to navigate the messy intricacies of human interaction provide a much-needed sense of comfort.