Tuesday, April 1, 2014

St. Vincent commanded Liberty Hall last night with performance art and impeccable musicianship

Posted By on Tue, Apr 1, 2014 at 11:37 AM

click to enlarge APRIL FLEMING
  • April Fleming
Annie Clark - the artist better known as St. Vincent - just makes it all look so easy. She can sing ethereally or intensely, depending on the moment. She can shriek, wail and groan. She can shred on guitar. She can flail, fall, smile, pose, tell stories. She did it all last night at Liberty Hall, and except for maybe the repeated (staged) falls, it all appears maddeningly effortless. 

Clark's set began last night with what initially felt like the crowd stomping on the wood floors of Liberty Hall, but the sound deepened into the opening of "Rattlesnake," the first song off her new self-titled album. She wastes no second of her show looking unpolished or unprepared; Clark seems so keenly aware of her body and face that every slight movement she makes looks crisp and posed. Midway through the song, she cracked half a smile, bent robotically in half, threw her cotton-candy poof of hair over her head, and launched into a note-heavy guitar solo. And she looked perfect doing it. 

click to enlarge APRIL FLEMING
  • April Fleming
Her movements and facial expressions, like nearly every aspect of her show, are tightly controlled. This performance, down to the lighting design and stage banter, was clearly rehearsed in excruciating measures. The result, however, rather than being dull and mechanized, is a great display of performance art as well as musicianship. After every five or so songs, she would stop the performance, and would be hit with a white spotlight. It would become theater.

"I think we have a few things in common," she said at the first break. "You were born in the 21st century. You laugh when you are angry. You make a hot-air balloon out of a bedsheet that you hoped would fly. And you were so bummed when it didn't. It doesn't mean you ever gave up hope."

I can make a tenuous connection between these interludes and the overall theme of the new album, which is something like "modern digital shamanism" (as Clark loosely described it on her Colbert performance). Based on our conversation last month, I would imagine that this is one of the parts of the show that she was trying to hit at the audience's subconscious. These moments were somewhat successful at slightly shifting the audience out of concert mode, but occasionally they were distracting, as some audience members thought she was asking them for a response when she would be asking a rhetorical question. (Thank you, alcohol.)

click to enlarge APRIL FLEMING
  • April Fleming

The band as well as Clark managed to incorporate this sense of theatricality into the performance, thanks to the choreography and, of course, the musicianship. Guitarist and synthesizer master Toko Yasuda is particularly notable - she acts as Clark's right-hand woman, supplying moodiness, supporting guitar and backing vocals, in addition to the complementary and abbreviated but strangely captivating dance moves that Clark has had orchestrated for this tour.

Clark's own musical virtuosity was apparent throughout the performance, but sometimes was easily overlooked as her hands move so fluidly on her instrument. The performance of "Prince Johnny" in particular served as a strong reminder that Clark is worthy of guitar god(ess) status. 



click to enlarge APRIL FLEMING
  • April Fleming

From a performance-art perspective, the show was equally impressive. I can't think of anyone performing at the small theater level that brings the entire package the way that St. Vincent does. The tour - which includes the musicians, a lighting director and a sound engineer - manages to do quite a lot with relatively little. A small set of white steps served as a platform, which made Clark look like a cake topper when she was perched atop it, and she also utilized it as a piece of furniture for her to roll down from. The green lights on Clark and Yasuda while the rest of the band was bathed in deep red light was also deeply eerie.

click to enlarge APRIL FLEMING
  • April Fleming
Ultimately, though, it came down to the music. Highlights included an energetic performance of "Northern Lights," which alternated intense guitar work with a wonderfully catchy verse, and with Yasuda taking on duties on the theremin. The final song before the encore was a buzzing, hot-blooded performance of "Krokodil," in which Clark got to show off some punk-rock chops, wailing and shouting all while throwing her body around on the stage several times. Girl commits. 

The most beautiful song of the evening was a solo performance of "Strange Mercy" off the phenomenal album of the same name. Clark's guitar flourished, almost sounding like a harp; particularly after the thrashy "Krokodil," her soft vocal performance at the beginning of the song was affecting. It was so quiet in Liberty Hall that you could hear the bartenders cleaning up in the back of the second floor from the front of the theater. This solemn certitude crescendoed into a full-throated yowl, and any audience member that may have been on the fence was all hers. 

click to enlarge APRIL FLEMING
  • April Fleming

Leftovers: Opener Noveller features a similarly mind-blowing female guitarist, Sarah Lipstate. I couldn't see her pedal board from where I was standing, but it must have been formidable. Using a looping pedal and just her guitar, she created dense, Sigur Rós-level dreaminess. I would probably enjoy her music more in a more intimate atmosphere, but her work is impressive, and for fans of cinematic instrumental music, it is well worth checking out. 

Set list

Rattlesnake
Digital Witness
Cruel
Birth in Reverse
Regret
Laughing With a Mouth of Blood
I Prefer Your Love
Pieta
Every Tear Disappears
Surgeon
Cheerleader
Prince Johnny
Year of the Tiger
Marrow
Huey Newton
Bring Me Your Loves
Northern Lights
Krokodil
-
Strange Mercy
Your Lips Are Red 

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