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On the Scene: St. Vincent at Terminal 5, NYC

posted by Dan Murphy on March 01, 2014

Photo: St. Vincent at Terminal 5 by Loren Wohl

New York, NY -- Greetings, fellow analog witnesses. To maximize enjoyment of this evening's entertainment, please refrain from digitally capturing tonight's experience. Thank you. -St. Vincent

The previous disclaimer is voiced in a robot tone a la Radiohead's "Fitter, Happier" to a dark room at Manhattan's Terminal 5. The lights come on, and Annie Clark, the alter ego of St. Vincent, stands center stage showing off her new getup - a short dress and purplish-white hair standing straight up, as if David Bowie was sprayed down with a fire extinguisher. Her keyboardist begins the opening line to "Rattlesnake," the first track on her new self-titled album. From the robot voice to a riff that resembles the soundtrack of an 8-bit video game, the audience is immediately informed that things are going to get technological. Clark does an abstract dance, curtseys, and stutter-steps over to her microphone. 

Her band lineup is the same as her last solo tour in support of Strange Mercy, featuring a live drummer, keyboardist, and synth bass player who occasionally picks up a guitar. The only stage difference is a large, three-tiered white platform seen directly behind the frontwoman. She stares wide-eyed and practically unblinking through the rest of the song, only straying from her microphone to perform mechanical dance moves, ending the track with a noisy guitar solo. 

As the band seamlessly continues through "Digital Witness" and "Cruel," the big singles from the two most recent albums, it becomes clear that much of this has been meticulously planned. Along with the spot on musical shifts, she and her band have rehearsed their physical motions precisely with a light show mirroring all that is happening on stage, similar to what we saw on her tour with David Byrne.

A few more tracks from the new album follow along with the Actor classic "Laughing With a Mouth of Blood." The lights go black again, only to place a spotlight on Clark laying down on the above mentioned platform. "I Prefer Your Love" begins with synth strings, and we see the cyborg-esque entertainer show us vulnerability for the first time in the show. This live rendition displays Clark almost incapable of standing as she proclaims that a mother's love is greater than that of a messiah. 

Two more new songs follow, and the intensive planning that went into this tour becomes even more apparent. Every motion seems to have been made twenty times before in rehearsal. It feels unsettling. She was previously liable to stage dive when enthralled in a song, but everything here feels less organic, less natural – almost like a performance art piece rather than a rock 'n roll concert. Even the stage banter is practiced, with Clark reciting abstractions such as, "I feel as though I already know you. Your favorite word is 'orgiastic.'" 

During "Every Tear Disappears," it becomes clear that this is exactly what she is going for. One of the major themes of St. Vincent is that the digital age has brought with it a disconnect between individuals – that we as a people do not show ourselves as we naturally are, but a version of ourselves that is preconceived, rehearsed, planned. It makes sense that the live show would display not Annie Clark, the person, but St. Vincent, the preconceived idea.

The stage goes black again, and when the lights return we find Clark at the highest point of her white platform about twenty feet above her crowd. This is one of the highlights of the show, as the band performs the Strange Mercy hits "Surgeon" and "Cheerleader" before the St. Vincent track "Prince Johnny" featuring a funk-driven guitar solo not featured on the record. All the while, Clark towers above her audience, as a higher life form quizzically observes a lesser species. The secret hero of the band is the keyboard player, Daniel Mintseris, who not only plays most of the quirky samples from the records live, but also controls the guitar effects and electronic drum pads of the rest of the band with his laptop. 

The pre-encore set ends with a rendition of her Record Store Day release, "KROKODIL."Clark puts down her guitar and stutter-steps and convulses around the stage in front of several strobe lights, looking as though someone had thrown the robot into a pool and the machine is short circuiting. When asked what she had learned from her experience with David Byrne, Clark once said, "David taught me to be fearless." It shows. She has since abandoned many of the things that have made her the "sweetheart" of indie music —from the rocking-out stage moves and the cutesy audience banter to even cracking a smile. 

This night's encore shows the peak of her newfound courage. It begins with extremely stripped down, moving versions of "Strange Mercy" and "The Bed," the former featuring only Clark's vocals and guitar and the latter vocals and keyboard. The show ends with a raucous version of "Your Lips Are Red" from her debut album at first resembling a Nine Inch Nails fever dream, concluding with a guitar solo found somewhere between the emotion of David Gilmour and the who-gives-a-fuck aesthetic of Marc Ribot. 

Clark has told reporters that her fourth album is self-titled because she feels that it is the most she has ever sounded like herself. Her new music and live show exude nothing but confidence, whether it's in a simple ballad like "I Prefer Your Love" or a riot-inducing left turn as heard at the end of "Huey Newton." Although such a lack of organic performance in a live show can be unnerving, the planning and precision make sense. It's almost as if Annie Clark is challenging us: "If this makes you feel weird, then you know how I feel seeing your eightieth Instagram post with the same exact face." 

Even with all of this going on, a disconnect didn't seem to exist between the performers and the audience, which may be the magic of the new incarnation of St. Vincent: finding a happy medium between detachment and solidarity.

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