Last Friday (4/8) the Starline Social Club in Oakland played host to two of the best working songwriters in indie rock: New York’s Mitski and Philadelphia’s Japanese Breakfast. While the former is a rapidly blowing-up headliner whose new album, Puberty 2, has received widespread acclaim, the latter is an underrated group fronted by the energetic Michelle Zauner. In March, Zauner released her biggest commercial and critically-acclaimed album to date, Psychopomp.
A crowd consisting largely of fangirls and hipsters with their girlfriends were packed reasonably tight as Japanese Breakfast opened with Psychopomp standout “Rugged Country” before diving headfirst into other emotional rock ballads “In Heaven,” “The Woman That Loves You,” and the record’s lead single, “Everybody Wants To Love You.” Backed by her drummer and bassist, Zauner’s guitar and synths filled out the room well, and she was genuinely charming and funny as a frontwoman. Telling a story about her top, which she’d bought in L.A., she had the crowd in fits before diving into more Americana-flecked indie rock reminiscent of early Rilo Kiley, but with more of synth-based texture. She danced all over the stage and nailed some great solos, and spoke with great enthusiasm about how her idol, Korean Youtube chef Maangchi, helped her to connect with her Korean roots following her mother’s death and had called her on the phone earlier that day. Personal and affable, Zauner was in prime form both as an entertainer and musician Friday night, ending with a solo performance of album closer “Triple 7” followed by an all-over-the-stage dance romp to a song about ‘wanting to have sex with a robot.’
Japanese Breakfast killed the opening slot, and for good reason; Zauner had planned to call it quits on music after making Psychopomp, before the album earned her a spot on her first major tour supporting Mitski. Only several weeks into the tour, Friday’s was the kind of performance that had just the right amount of refinement and all the energy of a group having the time of their life. Dressed in punk rock attire and with her short hair pulled into a bun, Zauner seemed superhuman; too cool to ever be friends with anyone in the crowd.
Mitski, on the other hand, was in less than prime form. Looking elegant in a plunging, floor-length black dress, she took the mic front and center, flanked on either side guitar and drums. Beginning with a slew of tracks from 2014’s noisy and simmering Bury Me At Makeout Creek, the crowd knew their Mitski well enough to sing along to hits “Townie” and “Drunk Walk Home.” Already drowning out her guitarist with an incredibly powerful bass, Mitski asked for the bass to be brought up even more, rendering her guitarist as useful as furniture.
A few songs into the set, Mitski announced that she was “sicker than she’d been in a long time,” and in a sad, wearied voice recounted a very funny tale about eating Korean food alone that day in Oakland. Although the story was cute and the crowd was certainly on her side, it began to make sense why she had led with less vocally-intense tracks from her previous album. The first offering from this year’s outstanding Puberty 2 was the muted, slow-burner “Thursday Girl.” Although the track works perfectly on the record, the drop in energy from Japanese Breakfast and her own opening songs brought the mood down to a much more ambient place.
Mitski followed by very casually introducing, then launching into “Your Best American Girl,” the lead single and strongest song on Puberty 2, but without the massive guitars that cave in on the song’s chorus, the live version isn’t terribly compelling. Although the crowd sang every word, Mitski had a rough time of it, missing two of her tougher notes as a result of her illness and looking markedly disappointed after the song was over. Dismissing her backing band to do four songs solo, she peaked as the room quieted to pin-drop volume for the breathtaking album closer “A Burning Hill.” Her singing in that song made it more clear that she had an ability to silence a room. This was then followed by “I Bet On Losing Dogs,” a song Mitski admitted to having typically not played live, which showed as she missed more notes both vocally and on her guitar. Again, Mitski appeared disappointed with herself before the show concluded with Makeout Creek’s “Last Words of a Shooting Star.” Mitski then exited the stage quickly and subtly. There was no encore and high energy standouts from Puberty 2 such as “Fireworks,” “Happy” and “My Body’s Made of Crushed Little Stars” were noticeably absent.
After, I walked through Oakland realizing what an important night it had been for both bands; Japanese Breakfast was at the peak of their powers, young, on the road for the first time, and having a blast. Mitski, meanwhile, with everything going for her, suffered a rough night at the hands of bad mixing and unforeseen illness. On some future night the roles would be reversed; Mitski would be the proud opener for Courtney Barnett or another huge name in indie rock, and Zauner would have a debilitating day on the tour. That’s what makes live music so compelling; any given night can bring the highest or lowest of your favorite bands, and as you sink back into their perfectly produced studio albums to contemplate the meaning of every lyric, you’ll long again to see that band as a living, breathing and imperfect entity.
Article by HR Huber-Rodriguez