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all words: William Alberque
all photos: Nick Balleza

St. Vincent (Annie Clark to her mum and da) put in an assured and winning performance at a sold-out 930 Club on Tuesday night.  I was pleasantly surprised by her extraordinary musicianship, won over by her entrancing stage presence, and thoroughly confused by her massive and fervent following.

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I did not expect to see St. Vincent live.  It was an unexpected pleasure when I got a ticket to her sold out show on a chilly Tuesday night.  I was introduced to St. Vincent by Svetlana’s priceless interview.  The interview made me buy her debut single, which was all right, but nothing too exciting.  Then, when she signed for 4AD, I decided to reassess – and was rewarded with her incredible debut single for the label, “Actor Out of Work.” The video is…well, it’s perfect.

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I didn’t buy the album –  something still kept me at arm’s length.  I saw the new video, Cruel, and it’s wonderfully deranged.  But I still wasn’t sold.  Now that I’ve seen her live, I understand the attraction, but there’s something that still sends me to sleep.  And the crowd?  It was massive, it was passionate, they knew almost all of the words to almost all of the songs – who are these people?  But let’s start at the start.

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I showed up, and the PA system was playing spectral western music, like if Mick Turner played a soundtrack with Michael Brook.   I was in loooove.  I didn’t want it to end.  The crowd was jam packed, but strangely subdued.  Clark was to take the stage at 9:30, and by 9:40, the slow impatient clapping started.  She took the stage.

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Clark is mesmerizingly attractive on stage.  I noted a drummer, a keyboardist, and, sadly, a nerd in a fedora (+2 for black leather!).  The first song starts, and my teeth are set right on edge.  Live, “Surgeon” sports a guitar line that would make Steve Vai sit up and take notice.  However, to my ears, it was like listening to a small group of angry cats trapped in the back of a grand piano.

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Just because you CAN play guitar with the virtuosity of the best hair metal guitarists of the ‘80s doesn’t mean that you SHOULD.  And kudos to Clark for being so obviously talented at playing guitar.  I guess some people fetishize the woman guitarist as an oddity and something to be applauded in and of it.  Me, I don’t give a shit what sex you are, if the song and style are shit, then the virtuosity is for naught.

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The crowd laps it up, though.  Thankfully, it’s short.  Next up is “Cheerleader,” and this is MUCH more to my taste.  Fuzzed up guitars and full, beautiful wall-of-noise production makes for an amazing song.  The crowd thrills to her brief, “thank you DC,” and it’s off to “Save Me from What I Want.” She demonstrates ample skill in her vocals, and even pricks at us with a weird anti-melody right at the end, making me shake my head like a dog with tinsel stuck around its ear.

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I’m not left befuddled for long, because “Actor (Out of Work)” comes storming out of the speakers like a full squad of happy death men.  It’s amazing live, with Clark’s vocals poised perfectly in a maelstrom of over-the-top noise.   She finally deranges herself at the end, screaming “I THINK I’M FUCKING MAD” and thrashes out the song’s end.  But where to go from here?  I’m four songs in, and sated.  Fourteen more to go?  FFS…

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Clark announces “Chloe in the Afternoon,” filled with choral keyboards and fuzzy guitars; “Dilettante,” true to its name, is all synth sax and, I too, “got no patience.”  As soon as the song finishes, she starts in on a story, “at the risk of doing a VH-1 Storyteller impression,”  and describes the plot of the video for Cruel (link at the top of the review, and if you really need it explained…) before bursting into the song.  The electronic beats are huge and heavy – and it suddenly hits me.  This is a Tori Amos concert.  Anne Clark is the new Tori Amos!  It’s true!  That explains the fans, which explains the songs, the hair. If she had a piano, there’d be no difference at all.  AHA!  Now I understand why this is passing me by just a bit.  Okay.  Back to the show.

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Clark introduces the next song as taking its title from a conversation with a friend of hers, an interior designer, who got a rich commission to do an upper West Side NYC apartment for an older person who wanted it, “Just the Same, but Brand New.”  Plenty of money, just nothing to do but reconstruct all the ‘60s kitsch with new materials.  Nice story.

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The song itself is beautiful, electronic, placid, and static.  It brings the crowd to a standstill – and not in an awed way, but in a curiously bored way.  I’m confused – it’s the best song in the set so far –  but then it goes horribly wrong.  Whereas “Save Me” sounded purposefully dissonant, at the end of this song, her voice goes horribly out of tune, and suddenly, I feel really bad for her.  Did everyone but me know this was coming?

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“Champagne” is next, with its big keyboard swells and perfect vocals, the treated guitars and keyboards melding to beautiful effect.  Clark tells another story, this time about her free day on Halloween in DC, drinking tequila, running through a cemetery, encountering three ghosts which turn out to be deer, chasing them, wanting to catch a doe and bring it back to her NYC apartment.  She’s an amazing presence on stage, and a natural storyteller.

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“Neutered Fruit” is next – funny, I didn’t see the backup singer before – I presume it’s the opener?  And there’s another completely pointless classic rock guitar solo, with the keyboard making idiotic frog sounds (not cool ones like “The Perfect Kiss”).

“Strange Mercy” follows and it’s all a bit boring, mid-tempo, trad-alt wankery.  Right when I’m about ready to head out early, she says, “this one’s by the Pop Group.” Ummmmm, yes?  You were saying?  She proceeds to tear into a blinding cover of “She Is Beyond good and Evil” with waves of dry ice pouring from the stage.  One problem. She’s got the guitar sounds all wrong.

It’s one of the most iconic guitar riffs of post punk, and it tells you how awfully she’s interpreted it that I start to doubt myself that I’ve correctly identified it.  And the vocals – just too pretty for the madness of the original material.  Ah, bugger. Nice try – there are certainly worse things to cover.

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Next up is “Northern Lights,” with admirable use of a real theremin, followed by the cloying embarrassment that is “Year of the Tiger.”  Tinny, faux-oriental keyboard melodies, bad writing, bad everything. This is quickly expunged by the far more fetching “Marrow.”

Clark thanks Jason for the epileptic seizure-inducing lights (her words), as well as the sound guy, her crew, her band, an “the 930 Club for being the best in the States to play.” Aw, bless.

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The encore starts with “The Party,” and its huge keyboard line, filling the room, with a music box-sounding synths – I am once again drawn in. This is beautifully constructed and perfectly executed. One more, “Your Lips Are Red,” and it’s all spacey and weird, with a dramatic guitar line, and we’re done.

So, I’m kind of baffled. It had many amazing moments, and a bunch of really duff ones. The audience didn’t care.  They lapped it up, and 18 songs could have been 20 or more – they would have been fine with that. I’m not sure what I’d change (well, I know a lot of things she should do differently, but that’s not the point). A different producer? A permanent band? Still, glad I was there.

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