The venue is apt: a rickety two-story bar in Gainesville, Florida named after a 1994 Western film with a 31% on Rotten Tomatoes. On April 14 at 6:50 p.m., forty minutes before doors, folks are already lined up. They’re mostly young, eclectically dressed to a theme, wearing bolo ties or bandanas or cheap party-store cowboy hats. They have taken the title of indie singer-songwriter Mitski’s fifth album, “Be the Cowboy,” as a command.
Inside, the place is dim and stale, made of dark wood and furnished with mounted bull’s heads and neon Budweiser signs. The crowd piles close to a stage that isn’t raised high enough, straining to see. The room waits through two opening acts, growing hotter and more cramped with each. Finally, the lights dim, and everyone’s screams drown out the midcentury French pop tune that heralds Mitski’s arrival.
She’s 28, unassuming at first glance, dressed in a plain white t-shirt and black bike shorts. But the power and deliberation with which she moves across the stage makes it clear that she is a seasoned artist with a forceful vision, someone who knows exactly what she’s doing.
She opens with an old one: “Goodbye, My Danish Sweetheart,” from her sophomore album “Retired from Sad, New Career in Business.” It’s a perfect representation of what the evening has in store: an airy melody reminiscent of a Celtic ballad, bittersweet and full of longing, juxtaposed against a discordant synthesizer.
When she speaks, it harmonizes with her stage presence, emphatic and precise and full of purpose, with few contractions or colloquialisms. She introduces herself, thanks us for coming and apologizes to the people situated behind the few cumbersome wooden columns scattered throughout the venue.
“You are just going to have to try to feel me without seeing me,” she said. “I’m right here, I promise.”
It’s easy to do. I find myself closing my eyes several times throughout the evening, allowing myself to bask in the grace and dynamism of her voice, the simple and raw passion of her lyrics. Whenever I open them, she is engaged in some kind of movement. She walks back and forth across the stage with the purpose of a debutante descending a grand staircase.
She gazes at her outstretched hands or the stage lights, so full of wonder it’s as though she’s seeing them for the first time. During “I Bet on Losing Dogs,” she embraces the air in front of her and waltzes with an invisible partner.
Toward the end of her set, she pauses to comment on the venue, noting how fitting it is. She takes the opportunity to reflect on the meaning behind her latest album title, something she’s noted in many an interview since its release: the idea that anyone, not just the likes of John Wayne and Clint Eastwood, can carry themselves with the kind of presence and self-assuredness that Western heroes do.
“We can be you too,” she said. “We can be f***ing cowboys too. Be the f***ing cowboy you’d like to see in the world.”
As with everything else, she swears with considerable poise. During the next song, she underlines her point by picking up the microphone stand and aiming it at the crowd like a sharpshooter.
The penultimate song of the set is the last song on “Be the Cowboy”, a minimalist ballad called “Two Slow Dancers.” Hearing just Mitski and a keyboard, a few plaintive, repeated chords, the easy honesty of her voice, reminds the audience what’s truly special about her. We melt into each other. We revel.
Though there were moments where I was transfixed enough to forget the sweaty claustrophobia of the venue, and though I don’t want to tell Mitski goodbye, it’s a huge relief when the show officially ends, people begin to stream out of the doors, and I’m finally able to breathe once again.
An experience of intimacy and vulnerability, of a room full of strangers simultaneously screaming “my God, I’m so lonely.” We leave ready, at least for a moment, to be the cowboy we’d like to see in the world.