Mitski Is a Mesmerizing Study in Movement, and in Pedal-Steel Pop, at L.A.’s Shrine: Concert Review

Mitski is such a cerebral record-maker that I didn’t expect to be coming away from her 2024 shows making proclamations that I might have just seen the best-choreographed tour of the year. But it’s true: Her run of three shows at L.A.’s Shine Auditorium was the kind of unexpected, advanced study in movement that couldn’t possibly be guessed just from listening to her records — the latest and best of which was last year’s pretty heady “The Land Is Inhospitable and So Are We.”

Just to be clear, invoking choreography here doesn’t mean Mitski brought along a herd of backup hoofers, which would be unbecoming for an erstwhile indie-rocker, if de rigueur for the pop stars she may also be reasonably rated against now. The dancing is hers, all hers, as she singer spends her full 90 minutes on stage striking poses and being moved by the music in programmatic but viscerally engaging ways. You could say she’s got a healthy amount of David Byrne in her, almost irrespective of the fact that the two of them collaborated and shared a best song Oscar nomination last year. Like Byrne, she can be a slippery person, but she’s on terra firma when it comes to rooting her live presentation in dance.

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Not that the 2024 Mitski setlist wouldn’t still come off just fine if she presented it in a more or less still-life format. This latest album is a departure for her, with music that feels big and orchestrated, a little bit classic-country, and fairly reverb-y, in what adds up to slightly spooky beauty. The songs sounds like they were meant to be played at the “Twin Peaks” roadhouse bar or, barring that un-reality, then in a really huge room, where the sound can bounce around a little and you aren’t quite close enough to crack the code of her stony facial expressions. The Shrine (where years ago she’d played the side Expo Hall, before moving up to the big room) felt like a perfect place to hear something this quietly magisterial and kind of old-school.

Mitski at the Mitski concert held at Shrine Auditorium and Expo Hall on March 30, 2024 in Los Angeles, California.
Mitski at the Mitski concert held at Shrine Auditorium and Expo Hall on March 30, 2024 in Los Angeles, California.

And to hear some good, old-fashioned teen screaming, because she does have a fervent following, to say the least, and one that skews extremely young in a way that still doesn’t quite make sense to all the fans of a more advanced age who’ve loved her longer. (The explosion of her demographic at the lower end may come down to two words: Tik… Tok.) if you read up on Mitski’s shows at all, you might enter a concert midway into a big tour with some trepidation: Will people scream out inappropriate expressions of fey love? (And then be shamed by everyone around them, and possibly the entire Internet?) This may still be an ongoing concern, from reports. But at least at the middle of her three Shrine shows, the audience of 6,300 belied its average age by seeming super-respectful, mostly offering pin-drop silence when it was called for and then sounding like a dozen jet engines at LAX at the end of every number. The kids are alright!

That rapt attention and appreciation didn’t seem at all mitigated, or Mitski-gated (sorry), by the fact that the singer sometimes delivered the oldies a little bit differently than they might have been expecting. That is to say, some of the material longtime fans are most familiar with was rearranged to skew closer to the style, or styles, of “The Land Is Inhospitable and So Are We.” Its genre could be described as modern Americana meets the ghost signal of a clear-channel megawatt station from the 1950s or ’60s. When I first heard the album, my thought was that I was so happy she’d ditched the producer of her previous album, 2022’s synth-poppy “Laurel Hell,” for some new genius; the punchline, of course, is that it’s the same guy, Patrick Hyland, as it almost always is. The two of them seem inhospitable to stasis, so they’ll probably switch it up again for the next album. But while they’re touring behind this one — with Hyland as her musical director as well as guitarist, naturally — they’re letting things cohere a little while they’re in this rich vein, while not being completely resisting having some of the “hits” be as indie or synthy as they always were in her catalog. It’s an ideal balance all around.

The extent to which they’re having fun with some of the rearrangements is best found in Mitski’s new take on “I Don’t Smoke,” a 10-year-old chestnut. If you look at some setlists, fans have marked it down as “I Don’t Smoke (Folk Version).” Well, no. It’s more like “I Don’t Smoke (Hoedown Version)” — far more determinedly country than anything on her latest album (or on Beyonce’s). That’s a big outlier in the set, but a welcome one. Plenty of other moments rely on Mitski’s Patsy Cline inclinations to a far subtler degree, although the amount of pedal steel, fiddle and accordion played by Nashville alt-country veteran Fats Kaplan, the ace in her seven-piece band, is telltale about where this round of influences lies. And if you don’t like the countrypolitan touches? No problem — there’s still a lot of familiarity in this set for any returning fans, whether she’s getting synthy early on with “Working for the Knife” or reviving her more twee rocker mode to close out the encore with “Washing Machine Heart.”

But this is not a tour that comes even close to abiding on sound alone. So how Mitski takes the show further into art-rock territory with her visual presentation bears a bit more consideration. The staging itself couldn’t be simpler, apart from one more complicated setpiece that pops up in the middle. At the outset, two sets of band members are playing on either side of a very tall red curtain — four on one side, three on the other — and the expectation is that Mitski will be seen in silhouette behind that curtain, before it drops, hokey as that might sound. Well, that’s kind of what happens… but only after the singer walks out on stage, plainly spotlit, and looks up at the veil she’s about to briefly step behind. Take your symbolism about Mitski’s attitude toward fame and show business convention where you find it, there.

Mitski at the Mitski concert held at Shrine Auditorium and Expo Hall on March 30, 2024 in Los Angeles, California.
Mitski at the Mitski concert held at Shrine Auditorium and Expo Hall on March 30, 2024 in Los Angeles, California.

For the rest of the night, once the curtain is gone, the singer stays on a round, slightly elevated platform at center stage, where her props consist of… two wooden chairs, fitfully employed when she needs something to lie down and lean against, or stand atop like she might be jumping off a building. The second number, “Buffalo Replaced,” had her going through the robotic motions of alternately hiding her eyes with both hands and putting them out as a stop signal, something she maintained even during a long, awkward pause between songs and into the beginning of the next one, “Working for the Knife.” Suddenly, in that one, she dropped the peekaboo routine and was all about graceful fluidity, or the occasional go-go-girl pose. At one point she turned her back to the audience and let her hands, wrists and arms form wavelike motions, kind of like the dancer in Bob Fosse’s “The Aloof” number in “Sweet Charity.”

Much later, and much less gracefully, Mitski was down on all fours for, appropriately, the crowd favorite “I Bet on Losing Dogs.” When a performance can make you think of David Byrne, Roy Orbison, Bob Fosse and dog-man Iggy Pop, it’s obviously doing something right.

And this is before getting to the two most interestingly staged moments in the show. In her Billboard Hot 100 hit “My Love Mine All Mine” and on through to “Last Words of a Shooting Star,” shards of something — faux plexiglass? — descended on strings from the top of the stage on down to her platform, then dangled there for a while before finally ascending, one by one, as her touch commanded them to arise. Were we to take these jagged edges as a form of danger that could be commandeered only by the awesome psychic powers of Mitski… or beauty in brokenness… or just nifty-looking stagecraft in a show that otherwise dispenses with it? Probably 6,000 different 15-to-25-agers at the Shrine held 6,000 different interpretations, and the scattered old folks, too, but we were all taken with it.

But “Heaven” offered the sweetest moment, when Mitski danced, arm in arm (sort of), with the white beam of an overhead followspot. That’s probably not as easily choreographed as it looks. (What was it they said about Ginger Rogers, that she did everything Fred Astaire did, but backwards and in heels? Mitski did everything the spotlight did, but backwards and comprised of physical matter.)

A night with Mitski is not a “get to know me” night, at least not on this tour (which returns to L.A. for a Hollywood Bowl headlining show on Sept. 28). There was virtually no conversation, although the star seemed friendly and down-to-earth enough when she got out of actor-dancer mode to introduce the band or say a few words. She quickly capped her initial remarks near the top of the set by concluding: “OK, no more chit-chat.” (There was something hilarious about her cheerful enunciation of chit-chat, as if that was the worst thing that could happen at a show.) “Let’s fucking go.”

And she did. No, it assuredly wasn’t a concert designed to wrap up her adoring hordes in warm fuzzies. But as a highly theatrical show that still maintained the sense of a real, cool, warm person animating all that minimalist artifice, it ironically felt kind of… could this be the right word?… hospitable.

Mitski at the Mitski concert held at Shrine Auditorium and Expo Hall on March 30, 2024 in Los Angeles, California.
Mitski at the Mitski concert held at Shrine Auditorium and Expo Hall on March 30, 2024 in Los Angeles, California.

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