Theremin. Check. Moog synthesizer. Check. Electric guitar with rare retro pedal effects. Check. Woman in chic frock and killer shoes behind said guitar. Check Check check.
Unquestionably, this is the stage set up for St. Vincent AKA Annie Clark. Singer, multi-instrumentalist and former member of The Polyphonic Spree and Sufjan Steven’s touring band. Tonight she’s (mostly) playing songs from her third studio album ‘Strange Mercy’ (with a few tracks from her previous albums ‘Actor’ and ‘Marry Me’ ).
‘Surgeon’ is the opener, full of 80’s synth noises, thudding beats and an ethereal drone. This version is much rockier that the album, in fact the whole set is. Live, St. Vincent not only brings her guitar to the fore but makes it an extension of herself (more of this later). As each track ends, so her playing becomes more frenzied, her body feeling and reflecting every note – and she’s not averse to a bit of head-banging either.
St. Vincent is an acquired taste, a heady mix of amped up 80’s disco, electronica, post-punk and octave defying vocals that display subtlety and strength at every turn. Think a cooler Tori Amos with (even more) attitude. Clearly she’s carefully carving her own niche. Porcelain of skin, diminutive, uncommonly beautiful, oh and she’s been playing guitar since she was 12.
As we move to ‘Cheerleader’ (one of the catchiest tracks on Strange Mercy) and St. Vincent wields her guitar, we get the sense that this organ wobbling show is meticulously underpinned. This is a woman who is very much in control of her specific sound, furiously signalling to the guys at the mixing desk to get the levels exactly right. As a woman, this makes me very happy indeed.
But if you came to see St. Vincent for the Sufjan Stevens connection, then you may struggle. She can do haunting gentle acoustica standing on her head (check out ‘Roslyn’ which she recorded with Bon Iver for the Twilight soundtrack) – it’s just that she chooses not to full-time. Tonight, she thrashes her way through tracks such as Dilettante, Cruel and Neutered Fruit. There may be a dreamy almost pop undercurrent but it is, without exception, met by dirty off kilter beats, loops and synth tracks, drums and grungy guitar. If it’s your thing, it ignites your soul.
It’s no surprise then, when St. Vincent covers The Pop Group’s post-punk ‘She is Beyond Good and Evil’. This is one of the few moments where she becomes anecdotal in between tracks, telling the audience how she last played this track in London with Mark Stewart (The Pop Group’s founder member). He bought her a ‘Sid Dishes’ washing up brush in the shape of Sid Vicious. Stewart said that this was what had become of Punk Rock.
And with that, she flings herself into the audience…with her guitar (see video below). Lying on her back, legs flailing, she continues to play before being deposited back on stage to start her next song (with mock out of breath noises at the mic for added effect).
Punk rock may have deflated somewhat but St. Vincent is flying the flag in her own inimitable way.
Full set List:
Surgeon / Cheerleader/ Chloe in the Afternoon/ Save Me From What I want/ Actor Out of Work/ Dilettante/ Black Rainbow/ Cruel/ Champagne Year/ Neutered Fruit/ Strange Mercy/ Marrow/ She is Beyond Good and Evil/ Northern Lights/ Year of the Tiger
Encore: The Party/ Your Lips are Red
Video on the Night
Your Lips Are Red (with stage dive)