Live Review: Mitski Amazes Brooklyn Steel Crowd In New York Homecoming

Bao Ngo
– Mitski

“These Brooklyn shows are very special to me, because this is where I came up,” Mitski Miyawaki, better known by her mononym Mitski, told a packed house at Brooklyn Steel on Sunday night. “This is where I played a million shows.”
The comment belied just how recently the 28-year-old indie-rocker came up, and just how far she’s risen in that short time. As recently as 2015, Mitski was playing DIY spaces like Bushwick’s Palisades; Sunday was her third of four sold-out gigs at the 1,800-capacity Brooklyn Steel.
Mitski’s acclaimed fourth and fifth albums, 2016’s Puberty 2 and this year’s Be the Cowboy, catalyzed her rise with their fusion of no-frills garage-rock, searing lyricism and just enough arena-ready pop sheen. But after supporting Puberty 2 with relatively bare-bones performances, Mitski’s live presentation has leveled up on her latest tour to match her ambitious studio work.
Like Be the Cowboy, which tears through 14 songs in 32 minutes, Mitski’s performance Sunday was a masterclass of brevity and efficiency. In only 70 minutes, Mitski ran through 24 songs, performing the majority of her last two records and several cuts off the one prior, 2014’s Bury Me at Makeout Creek. The performance was taut from start to finish — a rendition of an even earlier track, 2013’s angular “Goodbye, My Danish Sweetheart” — serving as a testament to both Mitski’s precise compositions and her methodical stage presence.
Mitski’s presentation was the revelation of Sunday’s show. The songs speak for themselves on record — as proven by the legions of fans at Brooklyn Steel who seemed to know every word — and Mitski has previously established herself as a skilled performer. But she expanded her band from a power trio to a quintet this year, delegating bass duties to a bandmate to focus on singing and choreography.
Though she was flanked by twice as many musicians on stage, Mitski retained all attention with her deliberate, mesmerizing moves. For the show’s first four songs, her legs remained motionless as she moved only her arms in geometric gestures. When Mitski finally began to prowl the stage, she exploited its horizontal space to eerie ends, marching back and forth during “Francis Forever” and reclining on a folding chair to flair her legs in the air during the thrash of “Dan the Dancer.”
High-definition video screens and strobe lights heightened the show’s organized chaos. The set’s cacophonous climax, “Drunk Walk Home,” juxtaposed pummeling drums with aerial imagery of cars driving through a winding forest road in the fall; during “I Bet On Losing Dogs,” lights bathed Mitski in red-orange and blue as she performed elaborate hand gestures.
Older songs took on new life Sunday, but Be The Cowboy tunes were the highlights. Exclude Mitski’s prior work from the setlist and it still would’ve run the emotional and stylistic gamut: the angsty synth-stomp of “Washing Machine Heart,” the organ-drenched assault of “Geyser,” the unvarnished melancholy of “Two Slow Dancers.” She’s among the best vocalists on the indie-rock circuit today, and delivered “Why Didn’t You Stop Me?” and “Come Into The Water” with pitch-perfect nuance; guitarist Patrick Hyland complemented her perfectly, adding glam swagger to “Nobody,” “Me and My Husband” and more.
That said, Mitski’s bold presence could’ve thrown some longtime fans. Even those who caught her on the festival circuit in 2017 will recall the shambling intimacy she created, violently strumming her instrument as she belted raw tune after raw tune. Punk openers Downtown Boys — who assailed Sunday’s crowd with breakneck ferocity and banter about the tyranny of neoliberalism — decimated the boundary between performer and audience, throwing Mitski’s high-concept act into sharper relief.
Her current show is masterful, but Mitski’s set-closing solo acoustic performance of “A Burning Hill” offered a taste of the opportunity cost; sadly, she omitted “My Body’s Made of Crushed Little Stars,” the other solo cut that she has closed many of her 2018 shows with. Many artists who ascend to larger venues struggle to maintain intimacy, and Mitski hasn’t yet optimized the balance.
But she’s come damn close, as the crowd’s rapturous reception Sunday night demonstrated. About two-thirds through the set, Mitski offered her thanks. “Even though I don’t know you, you all have saved me,” she stated serenely, moments before erupting into her anthemic ode to imperfection, “Your Best American Girl.”