Date: March 1, 2014
Venue: 9:30 Club, Washington, DC
Last year St. Vincent, real name Annie Clark, was presented with a Smithsonian American Ingenuity Award in Performing Arts. The fact that a high brow institution primarily known for housing and showing priceless art and artifacts took a shine to St. Vincent is telling. There's a sense that St. Vincent is to be observed and admired from behind glass - regarded from afar as a kind of beautiful curiosity. Her live show last Saturday at the sold out 9:30 Club did little to dispel that impression.
Boasting complex choreography by Annie-B Parson and creative direction by Willo Perron (known for working with Kanye West and Lady Gaga) the roughly ninety-minute show had St. Vincent giving bizarre non-sequitur monologues between songs, dancing like a marionette, running, tumbling, crawling, spilling down a big powder-pink pyramid, and finally collapsing to the ground violently, presumably "dead," after a manic strobe-light enhanced freakout for final song "Krokodil." Cut the lights! Minutes later St. Vincent returned to the stage for a three song encore dressed entirely in black. Get it now?
I find the notion of "art rock" a little strange, and the very term superfluous. Isn't the "art" inherent no matter how "dumb" the music might seem? "Art rock," of which St. Vincent has been classified, seems to specialize in a certain forced intellectualism and clever subtext that divorces "rock" from it's primal roots. Watching St. Vincent and her band perform their stilted robo-jig to a mostly inert crowd made me think I had time-traveled to a bizarro future where attentive concert-goers forgot just what the hell "rock" was - but heard somewhere that you should definitely whoop and clap politely immediately following a guitar solo. This was a "rock as art piece" kind of thing - but what did it all mean?
I applaud St. Vincent for dreaming up and executing such an eye-popping show. Her vocal performance and guitar technique were also top notch. St. Vincent's anthemic downstroke power-chord rocker "Cheerleader" and a twinkly solo take on "Strange Mercy," from her last album, were fantastic and drew the best crowd reaction. My favorite performance was "Prince Johnny" - a sublime trip-hop ballad featuring a killer blues guitar solo at the end, from her new LP. Despite the intimate and arresting nature of St. Vincent's lyrics and music, I still couldn't shake the feeling of contrived detachment between performer and audience. Like a meticulously staged Smithsonian museum exhibit, maybe the separation was unavoidable - perhaps intentional. I just hope St. Vincent can tear down that velvet rope barrier next time.