LIVE REVIEW: St. Vincent (Live in Providence, 3.6.15)
by Chad Jewett
During a gap in her band’s almost overwhelmingly powerful, utterly moving performance Sunday night at Lupo’s Heartbreak Hotel in Providence, Rhode Island, Annie Clark (aka St. Vincent) addressed the audience in the second person. In a chiming voice almost as melodic as her actual singing, Clark reminded us that we’d each tried to make wings from cardboard, played time-passing games replacing the faces of passing strangers with headshots of celebrities, fallen in love with the sound of certain words. Clark’s commitment to a warm, expansive humanism is practically evangelical, and her knack for intercutting the dazzling, chromium android rock of her most recent, self-titled album (which constituted most of the performance) with these moments of devoted group empathy underline just how keen her mix of the superhumanly futuristic and the poetically everyday really is. Plenty of artists have reached for some version of the Blade Runner/Grace Jones/Metropolis sci-fi pop that St. Vincent perfects, but few have figured out how to make all of that as poignantly self-reflective and tenderly familiar as Annie Clark. It’s at once alien and strikingly familiar, even comfy.
The extent to which her pared-down band – four members including herself – itself embodied this ethos of teamwork and fellow-feeling needs emphasizing. Live, songs like “Regret” and “Cheerleader” (from 2011’s excellent Strange Mercy) were absolutely enormous, largely the product of drummer Matt Johnson’s flexible blending of acoustic and electric kits and synth-bassist/guitartist Toko Yasuda’s rubbery, enveloping bass. Standing at an extreme back-corner of the stage, Daniel Mintseris’s casual stance belied the elastic movement of his fingers across several keyboards, responsible for the characteristic digital stitching that sizzles throughout St. Vincent’s work. To see the four musicians, spaced widely and surrounded by minimal banks of equipment (the stage was austerely set, with only a two-tiered platform at the back atop which Clark would occasionally sing), is to marvel at the gargantuan wallop they create, a dense and rumbling blanket. On record, St. Vincent-highlight “Bring Me Your Loves” is an irreverent span of playful glitch-funk. Live, the song is truly massive, its synthesized unruliness (made roundly tangible by Yasuda’s digitized low-end) pushing the air and filling your stomach. “Year Of The Tiger” struts in a minimalist, feline élan as the closing track of Strange Mercy. As performed by the quartet, the smoky track took on a muscular vibrancy, the song’s late crescendo swinging into a more sinewy, pounding register.
The band’s setlist favored songs offering these kinds of moments. Missing was the ornate bedroom-pop of “Marry Me” and “Now Now”, eschewed in favor of thick, punchy selections like “Actor Out of Work” (from the underrated 2009 LP Actor and given an even more overtly pop-punk makeover here) and the spry quiet-loud of “Cheerleader,” the latter lent characteristic extra weight and mass on its choppy, lurching chorus. It has been fascinating watching Annie Clark transition from the finely-etched indie-pop of Marry Me to the neon, high-concept body music of St. Vincent (it should also be noted that each new LP has been her best, despite Clark’s debut being near-perfect itself). In performance, the whole of St. Vincent’s catalogue has been subtly, perhaps even subconsciously aligned with the band’s increasing taste for high-impact dance-rock, reworked to simultaneously impact your head and hips.
Certain songs were sharply compressed down to their surprisingly physical essences. As motion-oriented as St. Vincent is, it still comes as a wonderful surprise to hear the slinky climbing-vine riffs and bass-y twitch of “Birth In Reverse” turned into strident, stomping post-punk, the song’s cutting, Devo-esque chorus leaned into with full-force, now bordering on the angular punch of Fugazi in its newfound toothy strum. Where the highly-stylized studio version of “Bring Me Your Loves” whittled Annie Clark’s guitar solo to a (purposely) over-digitized scrap, live the moment was let loose, all of its oblique sharpness made thrillingly central. Later, when Clark’s already-heroic “Rattlesnake” solo came around, the audience grew ecstatic, noticing the supercharged attack on a song that is already amongst St. Vincent’s most serrated tracks. As the band continued to build more ferocious, joyfully spry versions of already great songs, you begin to realize just how brilliant a punk record Annie Clark could make if so inclined. In reality, it occurs to you she’s already made a few. One starts to grasp the impactful, dense edge of “Strange Mercy” and “Regret”, songs made both more loosely funky and more tensely combustible at the same time.
During the band’s final song, an especially bombastic, loose-limbed take on “Your Lips Are Red”, Clark herself seemed to reinforce the punk spirit that has always laid hidden-in-plain-view like buried power-lines beneath her entire discography. At the song’s apex Clark dove into the crowd then climbed atop an admirably game bouncer to begin tearing away at an already-crumbling bit of plaster and cardboard along the theater’s wall (which one would now have to assume Annie Clark is now part owner of). The singer-songwriter rolled across the stage, entreated the crowd to find their version of that same fearless physicality, playfully donning the bouncer’s cap as she flung her arms outward. The song itself swung enormously between the digitized Swordfishtrombones clatter of its verses and the slashing burst of its choruses, accentuating both to the extent that the performance swelled to torrential proportions. The moment recalled the the band’s earlier, feral take on Tom Waits’ “Big Black Mariah” (another example of Clark finding a song’s fiery, explosive potential). At a certain points the performance recalled the sharp-elbowed post-hardcore thrash of Refused or Botch, building to bigger and more wooly bombast like some art-punk take on Rite of Spring, with Clark herself tearing up the theater. The moment was transcendent and thrillingly chaotic.
Clark’s physicality defined much of the performance, each song choreographed and carefully tuned to the stage’s space. During “Birth In Reverse” Clark and Yasuda pivoted to the song’s blocky strum pattern like watch-gear figures. At another point, the two guitarists moved north to south along the stage in alternating, play-acted robot steps. Elsewhere, Clark struck subtle, vampy poses for the intimate “Chloe In The Afternoon”. During the bridge of “Rattlesnake”, Clark slinked beneath the out-held strap of one of her several cubist, monochrome guitars in a single serpentine motion, underlining both her own athlete’s sense of motion and the admirable attentiveness of her guitar tech. The entire evening felt like an apotheosis – a near two hours in which Clark and her band showcase their imaginative, flexible grip on St. Vincent’s considerable discography. The blend of mystique, affability, and genuine vision that seemed to mark Clark’s performance was compelling; the 32-year-old singer/songwriter seems to be enjoying both an artistic apex and a confident, newfound understanding of her own vivid charisma. Clark sings with a smile that strikes one as both good technique (singers will tell you it helps you hit the tough notes) and the mark of an artist interested in connecting despite the very real avant-garde modernism of her work. There was a radiant symmetry to the way the songs could bend and burst so effortlessly, and Clark’s grip on the audience. It’s why there was little to question when Annie Clark, with a magnetic smile, would pause to tell us something about ourselves.