Or, electro-pop Joni Mitchell from the future?
I got a ticket on short notice to see Weyes Blood (pronounced ‘eyes’ with a ‘w’ attached) perform last week at Astra Kulturhaus, a Berlin club down in the clubby district. I’m a newcomer to her, though she’s floated in my periphery for years, and I wasn’t sure what her fanbase would look like in appearance or number. Turns out you’d be surprised by both the appearance and number of people who’ll turn out for her on a Monday night. Lots of guys whose passion for her equals their girlfriends’.
Weyes Blood is the project of L.A.-based singer-songwriter Natalie Mering. She lifted the name from “Wise Blood,” a Flannery O’Connor story, and has used it professionally for twenty years. (Easier to fit on a marquee than “A Good Man is Hard to Find.”) This was her second Berlin show of 2023, the first being in January: she has a soft spot for the city, she told us, although she confessed that she was “not feeling very funny tonight” and that Berlin was probably the reason why. She went on that she likes to “walk around the dark streets and think about the abyss of [her] soul.”
I mean. Can’t pretend I don’t relate.
But I think she proved herself wrong. For as many of her songs as probe the abyss of the soul, Mering’s stage presence is refreshingly playful. She took the stage in a glittery dress and matching cape, and from the start—“It’s Not Just Me, It’s Everybody,” the opener to 2022’s And in the Darkness, Hearts Aglow—she swayed with it, flounced around with it, actively danced in a way I hadn’t necessarily expected. By the second number, “Children of the Empire,” she had us singing along, the whole crowd in the palm of her hand. Her music often has a droning quality, her lilt wafting over an electronic Debussy-esque wash of chords, and it would be easy to feel lost in it. Mering was a present, attentive guide.
Critics have described her work as chamber pop, evocative of Laurel Canyon in the late ‘60s and ‘70s. (The venue’s pre-show playlist included songs by the Association and the Mamas & the Papas.) To be sure, I was first drawn to her voice for its undeniable Joni Mitchell influence, although seeing her in the flesh gave me just as strong an impression of Karen Carpenter. She has a gorgeous low range and she luxuriates in it: you can tell she likes to sing there, despite the occasional flirtation with a falsetto-like high register (see: “Twin Flame”). As for contemporaries, she’s compared to Lana Del Rey, understandable given the aesthetic I can only call ‘California tragic’—but even then (and this coming from someone who knows nothing of live Lana) she seems like more fun than Lana.
As is currently incumbent on every artist who can claim eras to their career, she took us on her own eras tour, hopping between 2016’s Front Row Seat to Earth (my favorite LP), 2019’s breakthrough Titanic Rising, and Hearts Aglow, whose orchestral experimentation Apple Music likened to—wait for it—Pet Sounds. There was more timeline-shuffling than I would have preferred: if anything, I would have appreciated a single fleshed-out ‘era’ dedicated to each record. But we did hear our share of songs from each in the end, however scattered. Her songs are long, generally taking four or five minutes on average to unfold, but the verse-chorus structure is clear; and, again, as a performer, she’s there every step of the way, so you feel like each song is an adventure led by her. Plenty of them have an atmosphere that envelops you immediately; but even the ones that start intimately build into a tremendous statement that, in person, is really a force to be reckoned with. Not…actually, not at all unlike the Who.
I have to shout out Mering’s band, of course. They crushed it. The bassist, a woman, reminded me a lot of Tina Weymouth in her movements, which isn’t gonna get any argument out of me. The drummer was fantastic, and, while the candelabra looked cool all around the stage, the one that threw light on his kit looked the coolest. And the crew obviously knew what they were doing: the lighting in brilliant colors, the images projected over Mering’s body during her delivery of “Movies.” These choices, possibly even more so than the music, created an idea of Mering filtering the Laurel Canyon folk-pop sensibility through a futuristic lens. It owes something to that scene, yes, but it isn’t derivative.
I was also gratified to discover something live that the records alone hadn’t revealed to me: her music is about her voice. Not even the emotions she expresses or the language she uses, exactly. About her singing. This is something I don’t tend to find these days.
That said, listening to multiple consecutive Weyes Blood records, as I did in the days leading up to the show, can be a little taxing. I was reminded that I don’t even listen to multiple consecutive Joni records because, much as I love her voice, it’s just not one to be listened to all day long in my experience. Two hours of hearing Mering sing live were magical, but that doesn’t mean I’m going to have her on repeat in my apartment for any longer than that. Or, if I do, it’s going to be the forty-second clip I captured of the first section of “Diary,” which opens Front Row Seat to Earth. I’m only glad I had the presence of mind to record, because I was transfixed.
Image: taken by the author during the encore