St. Vincent: 18.Feb.2010 – Chicago

I’m not the first to say, and I definitely won’t be the last, that, as St. Vincent, Annie Clark conjures up a beautiful disturbance in the minds and hearts of listeners. And just like she’s done on her first two albums, Marry Me (2007) and Actor (2009), her live show pushes all the right buttons, pulling you into a world filled with beautiful, alluring and subversively disturbing stories.

At 27, the Tulsa Oklahoma-native has honed her live show for the last several years by touring with Austin-based band Polyphonic Spree and orch-pop indie rocker Sufjan Stevens; and, as a teenager growing up in Dallas, she also served time as the tour manager and opening band for a family band called Tuck and Patti.

Now, with two albums under her belt, she’s finally embarked on her first headlining tour. At Chicago’s Metro, her show was a phantasmagorical jaunt down a sonic rabbit hole to a place bubbling with curious melodies and mad rhythms. But instead of Alice it was Annie, leading us to a place of wonderfully twisted tales of heartache, joy, and borderline madness.

On her albums, Clark creates a balanced and experimental landscape of avant-garde art rock. It’s primarily her sweet and delicate voice that lures in you in. Live, it’s her guitar work that surges to the foreground as she tears at the strings on her fret broad, as if clawing at the skin of songs. Fans watched in awe as she squeezed every last once of pain, sadness, angst and regret from each note, making her songs even more impossibly naked and raw.

Part of the beauty of the St. Vincent sound is its electric, eclectic, and eccentric mixture–synthesized funk, orch-pop, electronica, art-rock and understated use of hip hop. Yes, hip hop. It’s not something that I first noticed on record and it wasn’t something I anticipated live, but Clark’s band mates mixing in short horn blasts with electronic break beats on drum machines recalled old school motifs J Dilla would praise, making the show deceptively irresistible. Clark further came clean about her love for classic hip hop and induced crowd chuckles as she waxed poetic about the beauty Ice Cube’s “It Was a Good Day”. It was an unusual segue into Nico’s “These Days”, which soothed the house into an eerie, albeit gentle, whisper. All dark and disturbing lyrics considered, Clark was deceptively sparkling.

Backed by a quintet playing a small orchestra of keyboards, drums, flute, bass, horns, clarinet and violins, Clark started the show with ”Strangers”, from Actor, then led her band in fresh, improvised versions of “Jesus Saves, I Spend”, “Paris is Burning”, and “Your Lips Are Red”, from Marry Me. During the latter songs, Clark’s guitar reverberated plumes of feedback, fuzz, and note-bending that dazzled while pulling hearts closer in.

At the beginning of the show, Clark said Chicago was her “favorite and best stop on last year’s Actor tour”. I realize artists say stuff like that all the time to butter up a crowd, but there wasn’t a doubt in my mind that it wasn’t her imagination talking.

Photos by Colleen Catania