St Vincent teased in the run-up to this concert that her band were a “secret”. It turns out that she’s playing clever games. She styles herself as “dominatrix at the mental institution” for her latest release, MASSEDUCTION, but starts her set with a 40-minute chronological whizz through songs from her previous incarnations, ending with blistering renditions of three of the highlights from the self-titled breakthrough ‘St Vincent’. The second set is MASSEDUCTION in its entirety — all 13 tracks in order. The audacity, single-mindedness and self-confidence are staggering.
After opening under a spotlight, solo in front of a vast curtain to sing the title track from ‘Marry Me’ (2007), she is given one of her custom-made guitars for ‘Now, Now’ and the curtain opens slightly. With each song, the curtain draws ever so slightly wider and she moves to a new mic stand closer to centre stage. Are we seeing Annie Clark, alone and vulnerable on stage, or St Vincent, the art-pop entity she’s created? Is the band hiding behind the curtains?
It’s clear by the seventh song that there is no band — at least not for this greatest hits section — as the curtains pull back to reveal a huge and garish screaming vampire face. St Vincent lies down in a foetal position for epic abandonment ballad ‘Strange Mercy’ (2011).
Throughout the set, every mention of “London” and each guitar solo is cheered. She swaps guitars after most songs — all are of her own design in various hues — and shows off her full range of shredding and picking: jazzy, rocking, riffing, staccato, mathematical. At times, she plays her instrument like an android; at others it’s when playing the guitar that she becomes most carnal and emotional. It’s her ear for great guitar breaks that brings her musically closest to David Bowie, although the comparisons go deeper, touching on art, performance, style, and the idea of the musician as an actor playing different roles.
St Vincent uses atmospheric backing music between the greatest hits songs and the second half of the set to allow for a costume change. She returns in a metallic mini-dress, standing on a podium, backed not by a band but by a vast screen that will show a blizzard of arresting images, often featuring Clark herself in various guises. The bright pink and purple visual art recalls the first part of tonight’s show, when — rather than using a support act — Clark showed ‘The Birthday Party’, a rock-shock movie that she directed and part-scripted.
The faceless synths, drum track and bass test Brixton’s infamous propensity to distort low-end resonance, which is bizarre considering there are no musicians to be seen. Distortion mars MASSEDUCTION’s second track ‘Pills’, but Clark’s guitar mastery hits new heights as she switches from robotic to human. Brixton can’t handle the bass on the album’s funky title track either, but Clark’s guitar recalls that other purple-obsessed genius, the late lamented Prince, a name that comes to mind in ‘Savior’ too, until she noodles discordant scales.
Controversy has broken out about St Vincent’s use of a backing track throughout the show, but it’s not as if she’s just playing to the album tapes; the “as-live” machine music is more immediate than on the record. ‘Los Ageless’ highlights this, and Clark drenches the words in emotion: “I try to tell you I love you and it comes out all sick… I try to write you a love song but it comes out a lament”.
As the tracks unfold, it becomes clear that the album is meant to be played live, from start to finish. It’s a remarkable feat of determination to pull this off. The final words on the album, and thus of tonight’s set, are ‘Smoking Section’s outro: “It’s not the end.” St Vincent can hardly be accused of lacking humour. Her followers aren’t yet familiar with all of the new tracks, but Clark insists on putting them all out there, even if it means there’s no band.
The oddest moments are when backing vocals appear out of nowhere. Hearing singing “live” without seeing a singer is far more disconcerting than listening to synth, bass and drums at a gig without watching musicians. After all, everyone’s seen artists using laptops, synths and sequencers to reproduce rhythm tracks live and add atmosphere. And it could be argued that there’s little point in having musicians on stage if all they’re doing is pressing start on the machine, in the way that Andrew Fearn clicks his laptop at the start of every Sleaford Mods track.
St Vincent live is performance art, not just a gig. By appearing alone, her guitar prowess and technically pure voice are highlighted. She whacks out on her signature Ernie Ball guitar to end the fast J-pop beat of ‘Sugarboy’ and delivers sledgehammers on her red rock axe during the epic, electro-disco standout track ‘Fear the Future’, while singing angelically. She loves London, and the crowd loves her back.
When she sang “(I’m not) any, any, any… anything” on early track ‘Now, Now’, she pronounced it “Annie”, as if saying “I’m not Annie Clark, I am St Vincent”. Now, it’s as if she’s saying, “St Vincent is just me, Annie Clark, and me alone. I don’t need anyone else.”
Photo credits: Ian Bourne and O2 Brixton Academy
St Vincent’s London setlist:
The Birthday Party [Film]
Actor Out of Work
Birth in Reverse
Hang on Me
Happy Birthday, Johnny
Fear the Future
Dancing With a Ghost [aka ‘Slow Disco Interlude’]