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Live Review and Photos: St. Vincent, October 18, 2011, The Music Box – Los Angeles, CA

Photos by Philip Cosores

It must be fairly daunting to be a contemporary solo artist with Annie Clark – especially a female one. From where we’re standing it seems that there’s nothing she can’t do, and even more scarily it seems she’s getting better at everything that she’s already amazing at. In fact, I’m pretty sure everybody would hate Annie Clark out of pure jealousy if it weren’t for the fact that she seems like the sweetest and most friendly person in the world. And it’s this quality that holds together a St. Vincent show. A show where she and her band finely balance pure pop tunes for the masses with outright indulgent moments of instrumental ejaculation. If Annie Clark didn’t have charisma to go with the ability, a performance like this just wouldn’t work; the many slow songs on show would seem dull, the explosive moments would seem over the top and the most easy to digest moments might just seem plain. But, the way Annie Clark spins it, taking in every minute detail over the course of the performance seems as important as breathing.

One such artist who is just joining the ranks of St. Vincent’s contemporaries was the support act, Welsh female singer-songwriter Cate Le Bon. Le Bon, armed with just her electric guitar and her voice, delivered a set of half a dozen or so songs that, while not bad, were not really distinguishable from each other, and did not leap out as anything particularly special. It is entirely possible that there is more to these songs than was apparent on this occasion, but in this kind of setting they were bound to fall flat. Without any kind of backing (even a drum machine would have helped) the songs just seemed to flounder. Although some passages of lyrics showed promise, for the most part it was difficult to keep one’s attention pinned on Le Bon for long enough to make the most of them. Perhaps a little story between songs putting them into context would help, but on this occasion Le Bon stayed mostly mute. It’s too early to write her off yet, and if her recorded material is anything to go by there is plenty of untapped potential there.

Before St. Vincent’s appearance on the stage I wasn’t really prepared for how theatrical a performance it was going to be, but as soon as the curtain rose and the You Only Live Twice-esque motif that opens “Surgeon” came oozing out of the stereo it was clear this was going to be a more highly-produced show than I had anticipated. Through much of the show the lighting danced around Clark often casting her in silhouette – a slim frame comfortably wielding a guitar, always poised to take a sudden jerk or turn in tone. Other times it was quite stunning to see Clark under a spotlight while the rest of her band remained in almost complete darkness, forcing us to make the realisation that while the band are doing a lot of work, this really is a show about one central person.

It’s not really possible to point out a flaw in the performance – even when Clark seemed to go a little off the beaten track with her guitar parts, making them less fluid and more atonal, it was always clear that she was in full control, ready to bring the song back around and return to vocal duties right on cue. And for every moment like that that may have alienated the crowd there were countless highlights that any person could admire, from the vocal showcase of “Chloe In The Afternoon,” to the rock goddess guitar solo concluding “Just The Same But Brand New” or even turning a cover of The Pop Group’s “She Is Beyond Good And Evil” into something totally her own (not that many people knew the original anyway).

The set, as is to be expected, drew heavily from recent album Strange Mercy with only one song from the album omitted (“Hysterical Strength”). And while every single one of these songs was an utter delight – with slower numbers “Strange Mercy” and “Dilettante” proving to be just as thrilling as the more upbeat ones – what was more interesting, particularly for hard core fans, was how she has moulded some of her older songs to fit into her new live setup (backed by dual synthesizers and a drummer). The aforementioned “Just The Same But Brand New” starts out with the synthesizers creating whale-like peaceful ambience to bed Clark’s voice before exploding into a volcano of noise; “The Party” is stripped back completely so that it’s just Clark’s voice accompanied by keys; but it’s oldest song “Your Lips Are Red” that is the most interesting. Debut album Marry Me gets a raw deal in this current setlist with only one song’s representation – but what a song it now is. The final song of the set, “Your Lips Are Red,” is, as I described it at the weekend, now a space-rock monster that rises and falls through several segments of differing volumes, and at one point on this occasion even saw Clark on her knees physically attacking her guitar to get the right effect.

This conclusion is a visceral moment and one that can only leave you wondering what else she might be able to do with something like “Paris Is Burning” or “Landmines.” And in the end that’s the only complaint that can be had: that it wasn’t enough. But that would just be greedy, wouldn’t it?

St. Vincent setlist:

Save Me From What I Want
Actor Out Of Work
Chloe In The Afternoon
Just The Same But Brand New
Champagne Year
Neutered Fruit
Strange Mercy
She’s Beyond Good And Evil (The Pop Group cover)
Northern Lights
Year of the Tiger

The Party
Your Lips Are Red

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