Annie Clark – a.k.a. St. Vincent – kicked off the Memorial Day weekend on a high-note at the Black Cat on Friday night, treating the packed house to a “strange rock show” (as she put it) that displayed her distinctive musical talents and quirky charms. Touring behind her excellent new record, “Actor,” Clark played an enthralling 75-minute set backed by a skilled band featuring William Flynn on bass, Daniel Hart on violin, Anthony LaMarca on percussion, and Evan Smith on woodwinds. Though she exuded a jovial and gracious stage presence, Clark kept the banter to a friendly minimum, as if preferring to let her polyphonic songs speak for themselves. Indeed, the expansive, schizophrenically-symphonic sound of St. Vincent’s music was manifest right from the set-opener, “The Strangers,” during which Clark sang delicately over a bright and airy instrumental backdrop before stomping on her distortion pedal mid-song to unleash a burst of aggressive, crunchy riffs that demonstrated her impressive chops on the guitar. Such dynamics were characteristic of the performance as a whole, which alternated intrepidly between ethereal, vocal-driven pieces such as “The Bed” and denser, more vigorous songs like “Marrow,” a crowd-favorite punctuated by Clark’s screeching, staccato guitar work and a spirited saxophone hook by Smith.
The infectious new single “Actor Out of Work” stood out as the most conventionally pop-structured song on the setlist, while thematically it served as a perfect manifesto for a musician who trades more in theatrical role-playing than confessional self-expression. From the “wife in watercolors” in “Save Me From What I Want” to the “amnesiac trying to get my senses back” in “Laughing with a Mouth of Blood,” St. Vincent’s songs gave voice to a compelling, yet quotidian cast of characters, while keeping listeners at an ironic distance from the artist herself. A Barthes-reading postmodernist who revels in juxtaposing fragmentary sounds, words, and images from a vast range of inspirations, Clark acknowledges that her music has been influenced by cinematic sources ranging from classic Disney fantasies to French New Wave films. These reference points were discernable during “Marry Me,” the titular proposal of which (“Marry me, John, I’ll be so good to you.”) promises a fairy-tale romance, hopes for which are soon dashed when the protagonist betrays a cynicism worthy of Marianne Renoir from Godard’s “Pierrot le fou” (“I’m as fickle as a paper doll being kicked by the wind. When I touch down again I’ll be in someone else’s arms.”). At the Black Cat, the ballad was given a sparse, slightly languid recital, with fans audibly singing along and Clark thanking her audience for “still laughing” at its oft-quoted biblical allusion (“We’ll do what Mary and Joseph did, without the kid.”).
Regrettably, Friday’s concert did not feature the exceptional interpretations of The Beatles’ “Dig a Pony” and Nico’s “These Days” which were a staple of St. Vincent’s past live shows. Still, the evening came to an appropriately dramatic conclusion with a stunning rendition of “Your Lips Are Red,” with Clark declaiming cryptic lyrics over a hypnotic two-note guitar drone before leading her band into a gloriously cacophonous instrumental outburst that eventually faded into a plaintive, melodic denouement.