Shoulder-to-shoulder in a sweaty, bouncing mass of people, I gleefully mouthed along to a chorus I had learned approximately 30 seconds ago, ignoring the fact that I was wearing a mask. Onstage, MICHELLE’s four vocalists, tired but glowing, grinned down at the crowd from behind their microphones, arms slung around each other’s shoulders. “I’m not afraid to see the bottom, but I will,” they sang, and the crowd echoed. Ironically for a song titled “THE BOTTOM,” MICHELLE’s final performance ended the concert on an unmistakable high. But it took some time to get there.
Formed in 2018, MICHELLE is an indie pop and R&B collective composed of guitarist Julian Kaufman, drummer Charlie Kilgore and vocalists Sofia D’Angelo, Layla Ku, Emma Lee and Jamee Lockard. The band opened for Mitski earlier this year, releasing their sophomore album, “AFTER DINNER WE TALK DREAMS,” mid-tour. They came to Atlanta Nov. 1 on their own tour, bringing enthusiasm, experimentation and genre-defying groove along with them.
Their first opener, Mitchy, captured the crowd’s attention with her soft, clear vocals and relatable lyrics about exes, ex-friends and learning to take risks. From the start, the typical barriers between performer and audience were less pronounced. Mitchy introduced each song with a casual, conversational blurb — before a song about a failed friendship, she quipped, “I never want to see her again, but I wish her all the best in all her endeavors,” prompting loud, knowing laughter from the crowd. And she seemed to know a few members of the audience, who were very vocal in their support. The sense of closeness and intimacy could also have originated from the fact that everyone attending seemed to be between 18 and 25 years old; even before Mitchy picked up her guitar, camaraderie was in the air.
The energy of the second opening act, Nickname Jos, posed such a dramatic contrast to Mitchy that I almost got whiplash. However, once I had adjusted to the headbanging, wailing electric guitar and speakers cranked up so high I could feel the vibrations in my skull, I couldn’t help but surrender to the giddy joy of really, really good indie rock. Nickname Jos also adopted Mitchy’s casual banter with the audience, with their bouncy frontman announcing, apropos of nothing, that he “cannot multitask” and, later in the set, that he wanted to be Clifford the Big Red Dog for next Halloween.
By the end of Nickname Jos’s set, almost two hours had passed, and the crowd was getting tired. However, when MICHELLE walked onstage, the cheer that went up was loud enough for a stadium, which made it somewhat miraculous that it came from about 70 people who had been standing on their feet since 7:30 p.m. Looking around, it was evident how much we all loved this band.
MICHELLE opened their set with the sultry, groovy fan favorite “SYNCOPATE,” complete with choreography so visually striking I spent the first few moments of the song slightly breathless. I was also surprised by how remarkably in sync it was, even as all four dancers brought something unique to each move. In everything from the clothes they were wearing to the makeup on their faces, the band projected an image of unity while simultaneously emphasizing each individual’s personality and quirks. Even the energy they brought to the stage was different: D’Angelo looked wild, almost manic, to the point that making eye contact with her felt a little dangerous, while Lee danced with a sort of breezy joy.
With all the energy and talent in the room, it was easy to feel intimidated. However, MICHELLE’s performance was as multidimensional as the band itself. Although their choreography was clearly meticulously planned out, they also interrupted it every so often with moments of playful spontaneity. “PULSE,” for example, featured a dance break during which D’Angelo performed the movements to “Cotton Eye Joe” in such slow motion it took a second to register what she was doing, and Lockard devoted 10 seconds to a revival of the floss.
Kilgore also embodied this playful versatility, with a setup that included a cowbell, two drumsticks that he whacked together with impressive enthusiasm, a set of toms and something that appeared to be a water bottle. However, the band’s most memorable bit came at the midpoint of their set, when they announced that they were going to perform a “brand new” song never heard before, only to launch into a laughing, deliberately over-the-top performance of what I decided should be called “the merch song” (“WE GOT MERCH – SKRRT!”).
This casual, playful attitude highlights the most important thing about MICHELLE: At its core, it is just a group of friends who like to make music with each other. The band’s care for one another was evident throughout the concert, especially when they “broke character,” dropping their stage persona for a second to make eye contact and revel in what they were creating. Every band loves their music to a certain extent, but in MICHELLE’s performance, that love was overwhelming. And not all of it came from the band themselves: “I was a b—,” the iconic scream from the moody, cooly condemning “MESS U MADE” evoked a guttural shout from the crowd, and the raw, driving chorus of “LOOKING GLASS” had the whole audience singing along.
As the night progressed, the barriers between performance and celebration, artist and audience, began to break down. Not only did the band get physically closer, utilizing the platform right at the edge of the stage to make eye contact with individual audience members, but there was a sense that we were all getting emotionally closer as well. Perhaps that was because we were all so similar in age or the casual banter of the two opening acts put the audience at ease.
However, I think it’s simpler than that. MICHELLE loves each other and the music they make. And by channeling that love and appreciation into their performance, they turned a group of strangers into friends.
Referring to the buzzing, exhilarated joy emanating from the audience as the night neared its end, D’Angelo said, “This is beautiful.” She was right. Glad to have you, MICHELLE, and thank you for a beautiful performance.