[This series will highlight some of the best shows that I (Tom Murphy) saw in 2019. My better camera proved to be broken when I checked it before leaving to Red Rocks and then getting caught in the traffic jam getting into the venue and not being able to get the proper credentials to be at the front of the stage and did the best I could between my back-up camera and my phone]
When Mitski Miyawaki announced in spring 2019 that the next set of shows would be her last indefinitely. This lead many to believe she was quitting music or at least quitting live performance. But the songwriter later clarified her intention in needing to step away from performing live and the rat race of touring for five years that can’t help but have a deleterious effect on one’s psyche, one’s sense of place and one’s identity in the end by unmooring one from the meaningful contexts that ground one’s existence. One can hardly blame her for wanting to step away from that situation for however long it takes to feel like a normal human again and cultivate one’s creative instincts rather than channel that energy into getting on stage and delivering what’s expected.
Given where Mitski must have been when she worked on the tour performance for her opening slots with Death Cab For Cutie at larger venues than she would likely headline on her own it was telling the care put into making it a show for the big stage. Mitski is probably not a millionaire from her music and yet her using a stage set with a chair and a table as props for a highly theatrical performance was an interesting balance of concept executed to give people that know her music something extra while presenting to those that didn’t something they were likely not expecting from an opening act for a beloved, established older band whose emotional earnestness and 90s-esque, stripped down, raw performance style was the expected aesthetic. In moments her set-up was reminiscent of the spoken word shows from Spalding Gray.
Deathcab for Cutie put in a fine performance proving it had transitioned well from a band some of us saw at a small club that held less than a hundred people to popular indie elders statesmen playing Red Rocks and still making music with meaning and power evolved naturally from its roots. Mitski brought what felt like a stage production of her 2018 album Be the Cowboy with some highlights from previous records. She strutted about the stage, leapt about like a gymnast and seemed to orchestrate the music in the foreground with the band in the wings giving her movements their emotional context in sync with Mitski’s commanding vocals.
Near the beginning of the show Miyawaki, in a display of acute self-awareness, said, “You may be asking yourself if this is the set. This is the set.” She knew plenty of people were not expecting something so “arty” based on other shows the songwriter had played in Denver at places like Larimer Lounge and The Bluebird Theater at which Mitski played guitar as well as sang. This was Mitski in a stylized outfit and using props while delivering her thought-provoking and psychologically insightful lyrics. Toward the end Miyawaki broke the fourth wall of the show again and addressed those in attendance who weren’t familiar with her work by wryly stating, “If we’re not your flavor, don’t worry [Death Cab For Cutie is] up next.”
If Mitski is taking time off to learn to be human again on her own terms away from the rigors and demands of the road and being something of a public figure, reconnecting with the foundations of her own creative spirit, at least she left off, for now, with some shows hinting at the possible future and the best record of her career and one of the most incisive examinations of identity and the American psyche through a deeply personal lens in recent memory. I, for one, am looking forward to her return to making creatively ambitious pop music.