As she proved with enviable ease at Knoxville’s fabulous Bijou Theatre, Annie Clark is every indie-rock geek boy’s dream come true: a rare blend of physical beauty, mousey theater girl charm, and neck-breaking art-rock prowess that veers dizzyingly between virtuosic noise (her guitar playing) and virtuosic sweetness (her voice).
But the stage was set rather impressively by Shearwater, who bulldozed through an eclectic set way more dynamic and passionate than the well-oiled St. Vincent performance that followed. Personally, though I’d heard their name for ages (and had read rave reviews for their last album, Animal Joy), I’d never actually heard the band’s music. Along with most of the sold-out Bijou, I had my ass blown away. In a live setting, frontman Jonathan Meiburg’s voice is a thing of exquisite power, harnessing the passion of a metal singer: At his quietest, he moaned with the grace of Talk Talk’s Mark Hollis; at his throatiest, he bellowed with the intensity of Jefferson Airplane’s Grace Slick.
He offered a commanding presence as a frontman, often staring menacingly into a void in the center of the crowd — and throughout their over-too-soon opening slot, the whole quintet channeled a similar intensity, with a sound that recalled nearly every indie-rock band on the planet yet none at all. (“Spoon on Mars”, I scribbled in my notes at one point. “Blued-eyed-soul Clap Your Hands Say Yeah” the next.)
Though St. Vincent’s sprawling, Strange Mercy-heavy set lacked that same, well, “animal joy” and creative spirit, it was still a majestic wash of sound, complete with an utterly disorienting barrage of flashing lights. Clark’s ace backing band (drummer Matt Johnson, Mini-Moog-ist Toko Yasuda, keyboardist Daniel Mintseris) conjured every dry, alien rhythm and piercing frill with precision — to the point where some tracks were virtually indistinguishable from their album counterparts. Which begs the question, “Why go see a live band if it sounds absolutely identical to the album?” For most concert-goers, the answer is energy or spontaneity — but unfortunately, as talented a performer and songwriter as she is, Clark isn’t exactly a riveting performer — staggering awkwardly during her many guitar breaks like a drunk robot, killing momentum with dead-end between-song chatter. (All of the above, however, seemed to positively thrill the obnoxious hippie standing in front of me, who continuously screamed “FUCK YEAH! ROCK AND ROLL!” and swayed back and forth like a hunchbacked ape.)
But what St. Vincent may have lacked in spark, they made up for with mesmerizing musicianship. Clark, as we all know, is a flat-out phenomenal guitarist, despite her extreme over-use of effects-pedal fuzz. “Surgeon”, the Strange Mercy stand-out (and one of 2011’s finest tracks), was even nastier in person, and despite lacking the album version’s maniac synth-bass explosion, it was transfixing to follow Clark’s skinny fingers on the fretboard, wearing out that track’s incredible hammer-on riff while somehow singing simultaneously. “Cruel” was equally huge (anchored by Mintseris’ subtly intricate two-hand synth work), and their now familiar cover of The Pop Group’s “She is Beyond Good and Evil” was funky and ferocious: easily the highlight of the evening.
During said song, the aforementioned hippie appeared to be in a near-religious state of ecstasy, swaying his hairy caveman arms in the air, letting rip with another mighty “ROCK AND ROLL!”, just in case the rest of the venue hadn’t heard his prior requests. Annoying as he was, and as unintentional as his message may have been, the guy ironically had a point: A little more rock and roll vigor, a little more “FUCK YEAH” intensity couldn’t have hurt. But even though it could have been one of the coldest performances I’ve ever witnessed, it also might be the most beautiful.