As if we needed further evidence that Annie Clark can successfully pursue pretty much whatever she wants to do creatively, the mastermind behind St. Vincent held the Electric Factory in rapt attention for two hours last night with a one-woman show. It was just her voice, her guitar and various elements of her creative vision adorning the stage. We saw Clark as a writer and filmmaker, as a design visionary with a flair for non-sequitur fashion; the performance showcased, obviously, her remarkable range on the guitar, and her physical expressiveness in the realm of theatrical gesture and (at points) dance. And it showcased her compelling songwriting, which reaches new emotional depths on the harrowing beauty of MASSEDUCTION, her 2017 album that got a front to back performance.
Since initial images and video clips of the Fear the Future tour began trickling out on social media a month or so ago, the production has been met with some degree of uncertainty. Where’s the band? Wouldn’t it get boring with nothing but Clark and a minimal stage setup? Isn’t this just St. Vincent karaoke? These are all things I heard people say, either online or in person, leading up to the gig. And even taking into account the degree of chauvinism evident in those slags — would you be saying this stuff if Bon Iver decided to rip it to tracks, brah? — the unconventional setup nonetheless meant ticketholders were taking a bit of a leap of faith with this show. In my estimation, they were well rewarded.
Preceding the two main St. Vincent sets — the first pulling from Clark’s back catalog, followed by the full new record — was a short film, The Birthday Party, that Clark directed and co-wrote with Roxanne Benjamin. So in a way, it was St. Vincent opening for St. Vincent opening for St. Vincent — alright by me. The macabre short previously appeared in XX, an anthology of horror films made by women, and told the humorous but (very, very) dark tale of a woman who finds her husband overdosed on pills right when her child is about to have friends over to celebrate the turning of another year. It’s streaming iTunes and Amazon and is well worth a watch.
As for the conventional rock show part of the unconventional evening, Clark appeared from between angled curtains to sing the tongue-in-cheek title track to Marry Me as the strains of digital strings floated through the air. The only other humans to join her onstage from this point were stage hands — clad in black jump suits and ski masks, or neon blue leotards — handing her guitar after guitar, drawing the curtains, repositioning microphones. Freed backing musicians that have joined her on previous tours, Clark didn’t feel the need to fill the stage with stuff to maximize space — instead, the openness was embraced, with floor-to-ceiling video and light projection filling out the back wall.
The two things about playing to a digital backing — which, if you’re not paying attention, most artists do to some degree in 2017 — is that it locks Clark in to the exact tempo and run time for each song, without a lot of room for variance. But it also allows her total control over how the songs are presented; so “Actor Out of Work” was rendered at an almost dub-like half tempo pace, while “Cheerleader” (which dovetailed out of an incredibly blissed performance of “Cruel”) embraced its aggressive undercurrent, transforming into a searing industrial burner complete with a dissonant noise rock outro. Following a searing guitar solo on “Prince Johnny,” the tempo began accelerating, BPM by BPM, with Clark repeating “I wanna go faster” in screams until the song morphed into “Birth in Reverse,” which shut down the first set powerfully.
After a brief interlude, we were on to the full-album performance of MASSEDUCTION, which finds Clark exploring new ways to be a guitar god. While the high-precision playing of St. Vincent past is ever present — the skittish skronk of the title track, the Prince-esque funk of “Sugarboy” — the album is almost more focused on the art of tone and soundscaping, from the drifting Floyd-ian B-section of “Pills” to the Fripp-via-Rother moans on “Slow Disco.” And emotionally — just wow. It unpacks crippling feelings of mortality, of loss, of regret and readjustment to an ever changing world.
The centerpiece, “Happy Birthday, Johnny,” cuts to the core on record, and in concert. In it, Clark bids farewell to a friend struggling with addiction, a friend who may or may not have died, but in any case has reached a state where they can’t be part of one another’s lives. The most gutting line in the third verse, “Of course I blame me,” was projected in massive letters behind Clark as she sang it last night, then slowly faded, surely leaving many not-dry eyes in the house.
The projections mostly added a frenetic visual flare to the evening, while also introducing indelible images, performance art style — Clark posing uncomfortably for a photo shoot on “Masseduction,” Clark standing at a paper shredder, decimating a long orange sheet with the word “NO” during the cathartic “Smoking Section,” then writhing amid the cuttings in slow motion. Sometimes the footage was distracting (overly saturated images of cake and plastic surgery in “Los Ageless”), but mostly it was complimentary. And though the pacing of the set didn’t leave much space for conversation — though she did a Philly-centric teaser intro to “New York,” swapping the city’s names and making fine use of “jawn” and “Wawa” — it felt like the collective energy of the room was in such a simpatico state that banter wasn’t needed. “This is called the Fear the Future tour,” Clark said during the first set. “But I think there’s everybody in this room who is making the future a better place.”
See photos from the show in the gallery below.
Actor Out of Work
Birth in Reverse
Part 2 (MASSEDUCTION)
Hang on Me
Happy Birthday, Johnny
Fear the Future
Dancing With a Ghost
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