St. Vincent's Annie Clark makes brilliant music for headphones and home stereos – sophisticated, impeccably produced art pop that balances elegant melodies with warped, often shockingly violent guitar digressions. In concert, though, it's difficult to know what to do with her songs. Though a few of them, such as the vaguely funky "Save Me From What I Want" and the manic "Marrow," inspire a physical response, her music is decidely cerebral. As a result, her concert audiences are often split between quiet, motionless, attentive listeners and people who seem slightly anxious by being in Clark's presence, as if they're on a blind date with someone they know is entirely out of their league.
For the crowd at last night's show at Manhattan's Webster Hall, that nervousness took shape in awkwardly shouted jokes – often stepping over the punchlines of the singer's witty stage banter – and incessant camera phone clicking. For entire chunks of the set, the front half of the room was snapping away, obsessively framing their vision of Clark in dramatic stage lighting. To some extent, this is just a fact of contemporary concert going, but something about this behavior at this show was both egregious and oddly appropriate, as if attempting to capture something about Clark's striking, self-possessed image and graceful movement was a completely sensible way of engaging with her performance. (It should be noted that this particular gig was professionally filmed for MTV Hive.)
Clark's current live band mostly plays synthesizers and keyboards, providing a cold, clinical backdrop for her guitar playing, which is often more wild and intense than on record. A lot of her performance is akin to a sonic striptease for the audience, with fans waiting through her mannered, formal tunes for a glimpse of her wild side in brief bursts of unrestrained guitar noise. Unsurprisingly, several audience members called out for her now-famous cover of Big Black's "Kerosene," which went viral after she performed it at a one-off tribute concert earlier this year. If her usual fare is like a striptease, that performance was like full-on pornography, with the guitarist revealing the darkest extremes of her style.
She didn't play that song, but her band did tear into the Pop Group's post-punk gem "She Is Beyond Good and Evil" to similar effect, with Clark going all-out not only with her guitar attack but also her vocals, which went to a sinister place far removed from her usual demure delivery. These covers seem to unlock something in Clark, or at least give her license to push outside of her usual inclinations. Her own material ranks among the best guitar-centric music of the past few years, but these performances of other people's songs still hint at her potential to create something truly uninhibited, visceral and thrilling.
St. Vincent's setlist was as follows:
"Save Me From What I Want"
"Actor Out of Work"
"Chloe in the Afternoon"
"Just the Same But Brand New"
"She Is Beyond Good and Evil"
"Year of the Tiger"
"Your Lips Are Red"