St. Vincent at the Pabst Theater
Towing the line between Dorothy, the East and West witches, and the tornado itself, is Annie Clark.
Clark, lead singer, guitarist and songwriter for St. Vincent, stunned the audience at the Pabst Theater Monday night with her sublime, maniacal, and divulgant idiosyncratic pop. The crowd came to lap up synth and electric bass swells, raucous guitar riffs, and the enchanted presence and song-cries of Annie Clark. What they weren’t prepared for is that Clark is now performing art-pop that’s comfortable in the darkness, making her powers are all the more erotic and terrifying.
Opening act Cate Le Bon began the night with a sweetly dour solo set. Her sound and look have garnered comparisons to Nico, the chanteuse of the Velvet Underground. There are also connections to Sterling Morrison, of the Velvet Underground, in Le Bon’s guitar style. Her voice, rich and lovely, has a range not dissimilar from Nico’s, but Le Bon has a head voice with a clear vibrato, and each verse is a chapter in itself, full of syntax and texture. Le Bon’s lyrical ruminations are intentionally cryptic and grandiose. The poetry of Le Bon was a complex treat; a glimpse into a swirling, galactic interiority. Her presentation is shy and understated, but her imagination is blackly pearlescent.
St. Vincent then took the stage, tearing into new album standout, “Cruel.” The ensemble was remarkably pared down for the hugeness of the effect, with four musicians in total playing mixes of keyboard, a drum kit, aux percussion, looped samples and ambient harmonies. Swirling colored light displays and fog machines showcased the luminous Annie Clark – the bewitching vocal and guitar force at the center of the sound.
Clark plays the electric guitar like a student of the Berklee School of music who dropped out after three years (and you’re glad she dropped out), crafting a unique style on the base of her formal training. Along with her ability to narrate and express emotion vocally, she masterfully commands the songs with her guitar. At moments, she bashes the body of the instrument to locate just the right painful overtone. She uses a spread of distortion pedals to induce everything from an organ moan to shimmering banchee shreeches. At times, she makes the guitar squeal, hovering over the length of the neck and plucking the strings with the precision of a symphonic harpist. She plays powerfully with rhythmic sophistication. It is not catchy, but clamorous, experimental, dangerous.
On Strange Mercy, released in September, lyrical tumult is evident. “I’ve played dumb, when I knew better/Tried so hard just to be clever/I know honest thieves I call family,” she sings. Clark’s writing illuminates her propensity to draw upon the darkness and pains of others. For the chorus of “Surgeon,” she uses lines from Marilyn Monroe’s diary. “Best find a surgeon. Come cut me open.” In the vocal enactments, Clark is the heroine, the victim, and the narrator. During guitar solos, however, she channels the tormentor.
Between the cleansings of each song, Clark appears a sweet, gracious hostess, the object of the audience’s beguiled affections, even as they are reeling from the effects of her violent guitar. Clark is the pale poet in the High School English class of life, but she’s also an electric-guitar-slaying witch. Repeated screams from one imprudent male in the audience of “I Love You!” and “Marry Me!” eventually gave way to one other male voice exclaiming with genuine amazement, “You’re really good at the guitar!”
She addressed the audience, at one point saying, “We have good news! Of course, I mean Arrested Development.” Once the Milwaukee crowd responded with hooting approval, she said, “I feel oddly bonded to you now.”
The evening presented the crowd with a stream of smashing, flawess performances of many of her newest works, as well as some older favorites, such as “Actor” and “Save Me,” casting the older material in a new, even more intense light. Or, should I say “darkness.” Clark proves to be thriving from a dark space and shows no sign of turning back in search of the saccharine, palatable pop glare. She has captured our faith, our fear and our wonderment.