10 Oct 2009: Bowery Ballroom New York
As I eagerly shuffled down Bowery and made that familiar left onto Delancey, a lot was on my mind about long-celebrated Mirah Yom Tov Zietlyn. I knew, from many friendly tip-offs and a personal interview conducted earlier this year, Mirah’s onstage disposition is heavily affected by the crowd’s attentiveness - she takes none too kindly to a rowdy audience, often becoming antsy and flustered. I also knew that some of the most riotous weekends of my young life were spent at the Bowery Ballroom. I was fixated on this conundrum for some hours before the show, nervous that the K Records sweetheart was hardly suited to a venue of this nature. I was also mildly offended that two of my absolute favorite things, lower east side debauchery and indie-rock goddesses, might refuse to align. How dare they.
Now on top of this, blinded by years of fan-girl anticipation for Mirah’s live music, her October 10th performance was surely poised to disappoint - how could two hours at the Bowery Ballroom do justice to 12 years of brilliant songwriting? Even bearing this subjective hysteria in mind, it was clear that the first half of her Saturday night set walked the fine line between minimalist and morose; subtlety and the snooze button. Perhaps the musical and visual nuances of Mirah’s show were lost in my distance from the stage, but there were a lot of negative forces at play.
Unless some were fortunate enough to have grown up on Portland and Olympia house shows, I reckon most New York audience members first got hooked on Mirah via her recordings. It was shocking to hear a carbon copy live. The core problem of Mirah’s whimsical performance was that, as spot-on as her notoriously gorgeous vocals were, the subtle tweaks made to songs by the violinist were far more noticeable. She was outshone for the first half of the set, and the slower, more delicate music choices didn’t help her case. As I continued to feel criminally lukewarm about the night, Mirah and the band clamored through “Skin and Bones”, “Gone are All the Days”, and “Education”. The sound was intimate, but the feeling was disconnected.
The temperament of the first six was exceedingly fragile, but with a triumphant tonal twist mid-show, Mirah hit the reset button on energy, attitude, and most importantly, song selection. Without a doubt, the turning point occurred when she whipped out “We’re Both So Sorry”. It was completely Liz Phair-esque, exploding into the rawest, gutsiest vocals of the night, and giving everyone a taste of Mirah’s true live potential.
Clearly, she had shattered the uncomfortable daintiness of the first part of the set, and with all fears of subtlety-gone-soft expelled, Mirah welcomed openers Norfolk and Western on stage and continued into a supergroup rendition of “The Forest” and “Country of the Future”. The energy became endearing and livened her up for the encore, but her delicate recorded sound simply translates well with some songs and not as well with others. The elephant in the room (or the oversized concert hall) here is that Mirah’s artistic sensibility is not suited to a venue like the Bowery Ballroom. So who is to blame? How can the Bowery’s whopping shoes be filled with music of this nature?
The encore showed that Mirah could cleverly acknowledge this quandary; as she set forth booming, ridiculously infectious, almost patronizing disco-rock remixes of “Gone are All the Days” and “The Garden”. Cued by swirling lights and heavy bass, the anesthetized mob of androgynous faux hawks suddenly burst into movement and bid a proper farewell to the west coast performers with sloshing drinks and ample hip shaking. On Saturday, October 10th, Mirah established her versatility as a musician while unintentionally proving that song choice truly can make or break an entire performance – in this case break – then subsequently recover and progress. Nice save, but please ease my worried heart and find a new venue. I would like for both Mirah and the Bowery Ballroom to remain on their respective pedestals.
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