When St. Vincent, The Actor, Takes Center

03/24/2014

Annie Clark doesn’t so much engage her audience as pummel them. During her performance at the Fox Theater Saturday night, she left most of the talking to her guitar, which she wielded like one of those massacre-inducing hammers that occasionally fall from the sky in Super Smash Bros. Throughout the entire set, from the enormous crunching riffs of ‘Regret,’ ‘Birth in Reverse’ and ‘Huey Newton’ to extended wheeling solos in ‘Rattlesnake’ and ‘Surgeon,’ the guitar overpowered everything else on stage (including Clark’s own voice). But no one seemed to mind, least of all Clark herself.

The evening began with Noveller’s swirling guitar atmospherics. Although better-suited for a more intimate venue, Sarah Lipstate succeeded in filling the cavernous Fox with music that was alternately lulling and ripe with tension.

Noveller opens for St. Vincent

Photographs by Victoria Smith

In between sets, three stacked rectangles, one atop the other, appeared behind the stage, reaching almost to the ceiling. The stage decorum was fitting with the stark minimalism that Clark explores on St. Vincent, released last month on Republic Records: along with the Bauhaus rectangles, harsh spotlights flashed with blinding intensity throughout the set. The message was clear: be big, be loud, don’t worry about the finer points.

While both St. Vincent and the performance eschewed many of the subtleties in her first three albums, the trade-off was a cathartic spectacle of a show that threw nuance in the gutter and only let up during the handful of Clark’s seemingly-scripted inter-song monologues. The only downside to the performance was that it became too easy to forget that St. Vincent is a live ensemble; the other musicians rarely, if ever, got to strut their stuff onstage. Keyboardist Daniel Mintseris, in particular, plays with lithe dexterity; like Clark, he makes it look too easy.

But this wasn’t a traditional concert, it was theater in the same vein as Talking HeadsStop Making Sense. The conventions of introducing band members or giving them a moment to shine were disregarded in favor of the ambience of detachment that Clark created. From the robotic voice that opened the set, advising us to refrain from filming on our phones (met to great applause) to the glowing banquette Clark occasionally sprawled across, to her marionette-evoking choreography, a distance was quickly established between performer and her audience. Even if, as Sasha Frere-Jones writes in the New Yorker, St. Vincent finds Annie Clark shedding her use of proxy characters in her songs, one thing is clear: she remains the actor she has always been.

Watch St. Vincent performing ‘Rattlesnake’ in New York City here.