Mitski Conjured Hellfire and Heartache in Toronto

Trinity-St. Paul's United Church, September 29

With Mary Lattimore

Photo: Isabel Glasgow

BY Kaelen BellPublished Sep 30, 2023

Each time someone moved in their pew or headed to the washroom — or the merch line, which wrapped twice around the back room in a feverish spiral — Trinity-St. Paul's United Church groaned in protest. The 134-year-old building's wood floors and stiff seats put on a performance of their own last night (September 29), creaking and bowing beneath the shifting weight of goth-lite zoomers and couples who clung together like the vaulted ceiling was set to collapse. The space asked for stillness and quiet, and it voiced its annoyance whenever that request went unheeded. 

The music being played asked similarly of its audience. Mary Lattimore, accompanied by an ornate rented harp — "much nicer than the one I have at home" — and a looping pedal that she perched on her knee, performed a quiet wonder. The North Carolina-raised instrumental harpist played with an unassuming magnetism, closing her eyes and rocking her head as she pulled from across her catalogue; the spangled glass tones of "On the Day You Saw the Dead Whale" and "Wawa by the Ocean" to the shapeshifting "For Scott Kelly, Returned to Earth." "I emailed that one to NASA, which is a thing you can just do," Lattimore said of the song, written for Kelly as he came down from space and for Lattimore herself as she learned to socialize again after a broken jaw. "Apparently he liked it." 

People continued to slowly trickle in as Lattimore played, but not even the odd floorboard squeal (or prolonged, angry car horn from the street outside) could break the spell that she cast, building billowing, wordless harp illuminations that lit up the stuffy air like birthday sparklers. 

By the time Lattimore left the stage and a brief intermission allowed another round of sprints to the merch table, the pews were filled and a nervy tension had clouded the air. Finally, Mitski took the spotlight — alongside longtime co-producer Patrick Hyland on acoustic guitar and Jeni Magaña on upright bass — and the crowd's polite enthusiasm for the night's opener shattered into mania. Mitski said little, instead launching directly into The Land Is Inhospitable and So Are We opener "Bug Like an Angel," bent slightly forward with a stiff intensity. From there, she played through the record in order, stripping it of its full-band arrangements and leaning into the haunted gospel that roils inside her bruising country songs. 

Following the self-lacerating exorcism of "I Don't Like My Mind" (equally as enormous as its recorded version, Mitski's voice scaling the church's domed ceiling), she cracked about the heat in the venue, wondering if "hellfire is rising beneath us from all this blasphemous music." For all the austerity of the performance — three figures largely in black, like ants at the foot of Trinity-St. Paul's towering pipe organ — Mitski coloured her time on stage with a wily theatricality and humour. Pained expressions, small hand movements and solitary two-steps brought a sense of intention to her stillness, while "The Frost" took on new shades as Mitski wandered the stage pulling faux-pitiful faces and stagey gesticulations, suggesting a maudlin self-awareness in the song's aching loneliness. 

Every song was met with thunderous applause and hollers, regularly timed eruptions that still didn't manage to break the singular intensity of Mitski's simmering performance. Current sleeper hit "My Love Mine All Mine" was met with subdued, scattered singalongs from around the balcony, but the crowd was thankfully silent — save for one fan who took the chance to shriek a happy belated birthday to Mitski, which she accepted graciously, if a little uncomfortably — hemmed in by the show's intimacy and the frowsy grandness of the venue. 

Mitski sank to the floor for The Land Is Inhospitable closer "I Love Me After You," after which she climbed to her feet for a selection of older material that included "Francis Forever," "I Bet on Losing Dogs," "Love Me More" and "A Pearl." This portion ignited a more animated response from the balcony, clearly thrilled to be hearing old favourites after the slow-boil intensity of the previous half hour. 

The passion was mutual — "I love you all," Mitski said at one point, swinging her smile across the crowd — and after leaving the stage briefly, she returned to close the deal with a solo performance of Puberty 2's "A Burning Hill." "I am the fire and I am the forest / And I am a witness watching it," she sang as she plucked her guitar strings, all that rageful hellfire manifested as one figure, alone on stage. 

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