A reverential hush fell over the crowd the moment Mitski began strumming on her placid blue Fender Sonoran. It wasn’t immediate. As she took the stage and plugged in her guitar, the crowd noise began slowly fading until the slightest audible disturbance, like the click of a camera shutter, echoed wildly over the disco bar.
Later, the constant shutting of the ladies' restroom door and the occasional opening of the front door to El-Rocko became such an annoyance that Mitski made a remark about it.
This is an unusual scene for Savannah. I can’t remember a time, perhaps ever, in any our most prolific live music venues that it was as quiet as it was in El-Rocko for Mitski on June 23. Our primary, and best, music venues are bars. People love to talk in bars. I love to talk in bars.
But this wasn’t a normal Savannah concert, either.
In fact, the majority of the 120 or so people in El-Rocko seemed to be out-of-towners, or locals who rarely make it out. These were diehard fangirls and boys. I think perhaps my roommate was one of only a few people there who didn’t have much of a background with Mitski’s music. He came at my suggestion. (A published poet and professor, who’s a bit picky in his musical taste, the good doctor was impressed with the lyrical content.)
The entire scene had the air of a secret club gathering. Instead of the awkward half-circle of courteous distance most crowds make at shows in this town, everyone pushed up as close to the tiny thrust stage as possible. All seemed to be clamoring for a chance to hear their favorite song and share an intimate moment with an idol. It felt special. Perhaps, it was.
Passersby seemed unfazed at the starry-eyed fans inside the glittery El-Rocko, thrilled to be in such close proximity to a legitimate rock star. Despite the giant windowpanes showing a clear gathering of people, no one outside our little haven seemed concerned with us. It was perfect, actually; a secret party with a rock star in the heart of downtown, right in the middle of all the drunken bachelorette fun.
I am still a little dumbfounded at the initial emotion that overtook me, and I assume most of the crowd, during the opening seconds of the first song. I was completely taken aback at the ineffable power of Mitski’s voice. Throughout her recordings, her vocals are often mixed to a fine blend with complicated instrumentation — a unique and highly intentional ambiance that is crafted from an often strange or dissonant variety of instruments and tones. All alone, with only guitar accompaniment, every note was presented immaculately and was overwhelmingly beautiful.
She was graceful and grateful. Touring musicians often love to talk about the Savannah heat and how slow things are here. She did as well and her fans ate it up. Mitski is a charming individual, at least on stage. And there’s no indication to assume she’s not like that all the time. In fact, her music seems to echo her pleasant yet fearless disposition.
It’s quite a thing to capture an audience the way Mitski did. Not only does that take some foundation to achieve (in this case her two popular studio albums), but also in a live setting, it takes a command of presence. She is an indomitable, 5-foot-nothing young woman, who standing on stage, delivering her intimate and personal ballads, could have been an 8-foot viking queen standing at the edge of a battlefield with a blue painted broadsword.
Mitski’s "solo tour of beautiful places" seems to be more of a working vacation for the indie-rock darling, who Iggy Pop recently said was “probably the most advanced American songwriter that I know.” With a highly anticipated new album, "Be The Cowboy," due out in August, I was curious to see what the setlist would consist of for this solo show. I thought, perhaps, she would take this opportunity to explore some of her first two albums. However, those are not the albums that capitulated her to Rolling Stone stardom, and an opening spot with Lorde and Run the Jewels this past spring.
Her setlist drew almost exclusively from “Puberty 2” and “Bury Me at Makeout Creek,” and Mitski pandered, in the most darling way, to her audience. Midway through, as she played the opening notes to “Your Best American Girl,” fangirls in the front row began singing along. She stopped, laughed, and said something to the effect of, "OK, let's karaoke." Nigh everyone in the building sang along.
She did play an unreleased track from the new album, and essentially begged the crowd not to release it on the internet. When an artist has to ask fans not to trump a possible line of revenue by essentially stealing their music, it’s a sad state of affairs. Welcome to 2018 and a generation of selfish kids who want everything for free. Anyway, that’s another conversation.
I was also curious to hear these songs, which again have intricate and complicated arrangements on the records, performed on a single acoustic/electric instrument. Using an open tuning, Mitski essentially played root notes on the guitar, only occasionally voicing full chords (usually in the rousing choruses), while her voice handled the lion's share of the work.
Her songs, not surprisingly, are just as powerful when dismantled to their bare bones. So much so, that even stripped down to only a single bar of melody and a single bar of harmony, they still embody all the emotion of their recorded versions.
I am convinced now that Iggy Pop was right.