Mitski, Phoebe Bridgers, Jamila Woods & Carly Rae Jepsen did a “song circle” in NYC (pics, videos, review)
When NPR Music first launched their "Turning The Tables" initiative in the form of a list of 150 of the greatest albums made by women, the response was, expectedly, mixed. While many lauded their efforts to highlight highly influential musicians that were under-appreciated in their time, others saw it as a canon-building exercise, and like any canonical list, it excludes artists that others see as essential. And while their follow-up to last year's opus, a list of "200 Greatest Songs By 21st Century Women+", will doubtlessly still ruffle some feathers because of rankings or omissions, it contributes to a more widespread acceptance of what music is worthy of critical analysis (and attempts to recognize a wider spectrum of gender). Pure pop, like Carly Rae Jepsen's "Run Away With Me," was nested alongside electronic oddities like Holly Herndon and heartfelt folk rock from Phoebe Bridgers.
At Turning The Tables Live at Lincoln Center on Wednesday (8/1) night, the emphasis was on pop. The night opened with a performance from I'm With Her, who captivated the crowd with their three-part harmonies. Never standing more than an arms length apart from each other, they performed three original tracks, including a cut that made it into the top 200 songs list, "I-89," and a cover of Vampire Weekend's "Hannah Hunt." Before they could launch into their last song, "Overland," they were cut off, having run overtime during their expressions of gratitude towards the crowd and the show's organizers. After they left the stage, the commanding and sardonic Ann Powers, who moderated the panel – which included Carly Rae Jepsen, Mitski, Jamila Woods, and Phoebe Bridgers – with equal parts reverence and amusement, came on to introduce the main event.
Ann Powers introduced this in terms of her own experiences with small round robin performances, in which each musician would introduce their song with a backstory or commentary before playing a stripped down version. Carly was the first up in the round robin. Powers commented on the nuances of her pop music, and asked where she found the inspiration for her lyrical depth -- "I grew up listening to James Taylor and Joni Mitchell," Jepsen began, "And then The Spice Girls came out and ruined me!" Jepsen was peak poptimist, bubbly and doe-eyed throughout her dispersed round robin sets, which included performances of "Run Away With Me," "I Really Like You," and "Cut To The Feeling." Mitski, on the other hand, continuously deflected her own lyricism, brushing off her unique ability to transcend the personal: "If you write something that's true to you, it'll be true to someone else, 'cuz you're not that special." Whereas the crowd buoyed Jepson's performance of "Cut To The Feeling" with cued "ahhhhhhs", a highly codified call-and-response that felt larger than the acoustic set at hand, Mitski's performance of "Your Best American Girl" was met with a subdued sing-along, a cathartic and quiet seconding of the highly personal sentiments expressed in the track. She also performed "Geyser" and "I Will."
If the night's primary emphasis was on pop, its secondary emphasis was on the personal as universal - Powers continuously returned to this theme, like when she asked Phoebe Bridgers if she ever backed away from a lyric because it was too personal. The deceivingly youthful Bridgers (Powers described her as "wise beyond her years") charmingly responded, "When I sent my mom my record, she texted me, 'Are you sure you're okay?'" before launching into a contemplative and quiet rendition of "Smoke Signals."
One of Powers' questions for Jamila Woods involved how her hometown of Chicago impacted her writing. Woods mentioned the legendary Chicago poet Gwendolyn Brooks as an inspiration, and added that "I just had these stories to tell that weren't as boring as I thought they might be." Her performance of "LSD" (originally performed with "some dude named Chance the Rapper," as Powers cheekily put it), was accompanied by Nashville guitarist Melanie Faye. Ranging from spiritual ("Holy") to political ("Blk Girl Soldier"), Woods made her Chicago activism the center of her performance.
Powers ended the evening with a telling question for each performer – what is one artist they believe was under-appreciated in their time? And though Powers was careful to specify that there were no "identity boundaries" on their response, the weighty importance of balancing the scales of musical history was clearly on their minds – Carly chose Cyndi Lauper, Mitski chose Bjork, Woods chose Des'ree, and Bridgers named the inimitable Nina Simone. Jamila Woods closed out the night with a blended performance of Destiny's Child's "Say My Name" and her own self-affirming track "In My Name." It was the perfect blend of female pop, past and present, that signaled a hopeful shift towards a more female fronted future in music.
Check out pictures from Wednesday night in the gallery above, and watch a few video clips of the performances below.
Mitski just added a third NYC show to her tour: a record release show at Elsewhere. Jamila Woods performs at Afropunk Brooklyn later this month. Phoebe returns to NYC in September for The National's There's No Leaving New York festival at Forest Hills Stadium, which you can enter to win a VIP experience to.
photos by Amanda Hatfield