By Zoe Williams
I realized there are very few artists I have ever loved like this. In a very generic and common way, I have loved music for a long time and my own taste reflects what I go through in life. So, it makes sense that I love Bartees Strange...
On a Wednesday night, my friends and I were waiting for my brother, Luke, outside of Little Star Pizza on Divisadero. Before we had even left the restaurant, we had to call a friend to take home the leftovers we could not bring into the concert venue down the street. While we waited for my brother, we tried to convince our friend to take home the two large monstera leaves in addition to the pizza.
(You’re already taking home the pizza, what’s two extra monstera leaves?)
(All you have to do is put them in water.)
(We’re seeing him tonight.)
A man in his early thirties wearing loose black clothing and a backpack tried and failed to get into the Boba Guys that had just closed for the night. He shrugged and continued up the street towards us. We abandoned our plant crisis and petered into a wonderstruck silence.
Last week, my eldest brother Hank, saw Bartees Strange perform in Texas. Then he met Strange after the concert, congratulating and thanking him for a great show. Over the next week, Hank raved about Strange’s kindness and talent. Since Hank had met him, I, with no concrete reasoning but naive assumption, expected to meet Strange as well.
(We’re seeing you tonight!)
Bartees Strange did not wave or acknowledge that he’d heard me, rather walked right up to me and my silent friends.
(Oh, hi, I’m Bartees.)
He shook each of our hands and asked all of our names. His demeanor and voice were warm and kind and none of us really knew what to say. He looked like a shorter version of Hank but with a septum piercing, like me. He stood with my friends with such ease, anyone who passed by would probably assume we were all part of one group, instead of some people randomly meeting one of their favorite artists.
I awkwardly stumbled into asking for a picture and told him that he met my brother the previous week. He paused for a second and then raised his hand in the air to indicate “tall,” and I knew he remembered Hank.
Finally, Luke joined us and Bartees Strange was bookended by Williamses and photos. He complimented my necklace and said he has the same one. He also told us we can’t miss the first opener, native Florida rap duo They Hate Change. Strange left our group and kept walking up Divisadero in search of an open boba place or possibly anything greater, with the monstera plant in his hands.
(Can I take these on plane with me?)
(Yeah, I’ve done it, it’s fine, don’t worry.)
While we waited in line to show ID and tickets, he passed us again with the two leaves, each one larger than both of my hands together, bouncing in step. He tapped my friend on the elbow and we felt welcomed and ready for the night.
I’d only been to a handful of concerts in my life, and this was my first one since December of 2019. This was also the first concert I’d been to completely sober in years. I was almost overwhelmingly present under the giant speaker on the left side of the stage, the spot I picked for us to stand. My brother asked if I had chosen this spot intentionally, but all I tried to do was get as close as possible.
To our left was a set of bleachers along the wall, holding all of the artists and their bands, giving them easy access backstage. My eyes kept wandering over to watch the members of They Hate Change, now out of their matching white bodysuits. They were watching the sets they must have seen numerous times at this point on tour, but still nodded along. Once off the stage, Brooklyn rock band Pom Pom Squad remained a solid unit in various shades of red, just like during their performance. Every time I looked over to Bartees Strange, the monstera was always with him.
Months ago, I clicked on a shaky phone video on Twitter, taken from the back of a stage showing a Black man in big glasses hyping up a crowd already spilling over with energy. He grabbed his guitar, he turned to the mic and started screaming. The instrumentals and the crowd were louder than any voice I could hear from this video but I knew that whatever it was, I wanted to be a part of it. I scrolled through the replies until I found the artist’s name: Bartees Strange. I listened to the number one single on his Spotify, “Boomer,” from his debut album, Live Forever, and was immediately enamored. The song itself does not really adhere to a strict genre, jumping from rap to rock to the chorus, which to me, has always felt like gospel.
Past the wide and fun range of sounds that is the part of Strange’s music, I always find myself reaching towards this common theme in many of his song, which is about conflict with expectations; the expectations of the self and others’ for you.
There are little to zero moments that I feel I have grown up into the person I thought I would be or that anyone had in mind. I don’t think that makes me worse or better, but it does dredge up some sense of loss for who I was supposed to be, even if I have never had a clear picture of her.
It's kinda hard to tell exactly where I wanna go
I know it don't show
I know it don't show
And I, I can’t even lift my hands up
That’s what we dance for, Lord, I'm going in
Before the song even finished, I had sent the link to Hank. Soon he would text back, “this nigga jammin’!” I had not done a deep dive yet, but all I could think was, Absolutely.
I realized there are very few artists I have ever loved like this. In a very generic and common way, I have loved music for a long time and my own taste and listening habits directly reflect what I will be going through in life. So, it makes sense that I love Bartees Strange because I’ve felt his songs become solid and hold me when I was gasping for air. When a mass of gray days morphed into a single unconquerable entity, I listened to his track “Ghostly” on repeat, fixating on certain lyrics that mirrored how I felt that one winter: Memories well up in my eyes / Most folks would say that I seem fine / But each morning I don't feel worth it.
At the show, “Ghostly” wasn’t played and maybe that was a good thing. For one, it is definitely not a song to jump in a crowd to. Part one is a collection of low static that tells the distance the speaker puts between themselves and those around them for reasons they are not able to voice or explain, specifically to those they feel they are hurting. Part two of the song is when the lyrics become more discernible but are just as pointed and depressing. Hearing that song outside of the solitary of my room or headphones would, I imagine, have me feeling like a helpless four-legged creature, forced on its back, belly up towards a blue sky, shivering as lines are drawn down my middle, so the knife knows where to cut first.
At some point, Strange exited through the double doors to prepare for his own performance. My friends, brother, and I were still buzzing about having met him.
(Can you believe it?)
(He’s SO nice!)
(Can you really take unpropagated leaves on a plane?)
(I don’t know, I’ve never tried it.)
We watched a venue worker come on stage and adjust the microphone.
(Wait, no fucking way.)
(Are you kidding?)
[Indistinguishable sound, think laughter or glee]
Our group of four looked in disbelief. On stage, taped to the mic were the monstera leaves. They were bright green under the spotlight, bowing on either side of the black microphone. Then, the lights dimmed.
Bartees Strange and his band opened with “Escape this Circus,” from his latest and critically acclaimed album, Farm to Table. As on the sidewalk, his voice was warm, containing a deep roughness that envelopes. I let myself be pulled and gripped by the voice that rose over drums and guitar strums in golden stage light. So don’t do everything they say to / we’re all part of this circus, all on our own horses. The song felt like what will be deemed as “classic Bartees,” when people will talk about him in the future and speculate about the musical foundation he has built. His voice was smooth and low as he stretched out the lyrics, So don’t do it, this repeated warning about the dangers of group attachment. The groups that will seek you out, ones that are attached to you without your consideration or consent.
We rode the wave of his voice and were brought to the crescent peak and then plummeted: that’s why I really can’t fuck with y’all! The speaker directly overhead bore down, threatening the limits of our eardrums and I was reminded why I was there.
The core of listening to loud music too loud, I think, is about searching for some articulation of the inarticulate. Because all that noise and those soundwaves are the only thing that can bend and form into something close to the unnamed deep feelings inside of us, the ones that can get locked under our skin or in our routines. And sometimes I just want to get a glimpse of the least helpful but possibly the most honest parts of myself.
As the show progressed, we got to “Mustang,” a song from Live Forever, about the small Oklahoma town Strange grew up in. This is a song I have personally gotten to know well from the times I’ve walked home alone down dark streets carrying an emptiness inside of my chest that opens right behind my sternum at the exact time I exit through a doorframe and my friend’s voices fade away behind me. Instead of screaming the lyrics by myself to vacant sidewalks, I was one of many in a crowd, looking to the night’s leader as we all yelled, asking, begging, Is anyone really up for this one? And some days the answer is obvious but most days it is evasive, and it is easier to turn my cheek against reality, but that night the answer did not matter.
Because it is never just one thing that has sunk its claws into me to try to drag me down by the end of the day, but I am only one person. and it is nice to know I am not the only one who has felt herself drown in the tides. And that night I didn’t have to have any answers as I felt myself unfold and stretch from wall to wall, floating above the crowd and feeling every note pass through me.
Zoe Williams works and lives in San Francisco.