[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.
When Ernest Greene was touring for his 2013 album Paracosm, he looked intensely uncomfortable. He hid it with the kind of grace and aplomb one might hope for and expect. But when he tried to pump up the crowd during the show it seemed awkward because it is the sort of thing that doesn’t jibe with Greene or his music which, at its best, seems like a manifestation of yearnings, aspirations, resting in one’s personal place of peace, processing one’s experiences in doses that make sense to the human psyche if not to our industrial culture of accelerated expectations of ourselves and others. The music of Washed Out at its heart works best when it remains an invitation to take a break from that grind and take the time to reflect and feel at your own pace and in your own way. Hyping a crowd is the opposite of that type of intimacy. It came across as Greene doing his best to fit in with the indie rock world or a commercial rock world in a way that never really suited him. No surprises, Greene took some serious time off from any album driven touring. In that time it seems that Greene has taken efforts to reconnect with his creativity and his musical instincts.
2017’s Mister Mellow, an obvious nod to where Greene wanted to be and not where he seemed to be a few years ago, is a return to Greene’s roots in making beats with samples and synths and its release on underground hip-hop label Stones Throw is a perfect fit. For the album, and for the tour, Greene worked with Jesse Orrall on putting together the visual side of the album. That visual side on DVD was an entrancing companion to an album that seemed to be Greene’s attempt at self-healing through music and visual art. With song titles like “Burn Out Blues,” “Time Off,” “I’ve Been Daydreaming My Entire Life,” “Hard to Say Goodbye,” “Instant Calm,” “Get Lost,” “Easy Does It” and “Zonked,” Greene isn’t hiding. He’s confessing and tapping into how many of us feel in 2017 with the overtaxing demands of the world around us with not nearly enough of the rewards everyone deserves from being involved in a society and economic system that places not nearly enough value on humans in themselves and their dreams that don’t fit in with program of late stage capitalism.
On August 22, 2017, the Washed Out tour came to Denver at the Ogden Theatre. The show took the images from the DVD of Mister Mellow and rendered it in three dimensions. Greene and his associates made a show that felt like we were getting to see a really unusual and deeply personal and colorful film made by a friend. But a film in the modern, immersive sense with music that synched perfectly with the moving images at a volume that hits the body with all tones but especially the low end. The collage aesthetic of the video is like something you might make to chase away boredom and stimulate your mind by repurposing imagery around you. While not sampling, a similar creative instinct. It was a psychedelic hip-hop/synth pop experience and Greene didn’t indulge the “How are you doing tonight? Are you excited” platitudes of many bands. Bands that probably care but it would have taken us out of the moment and sullied what should be an experience that tries to transcend the usual concert context and conception. If there were technical errors with the set or venue, the show got back on track quickly and kept Greene’s sharing of the deep daydreaming he’s been getting back to over the last handful of years. At worst the Mister Mellow shows are an interesting and ambitious experiment, at their best, a reminder in practice of a better world to come where exercise and stimulation of the imagination are afforded their rightful place in the center of world culture.