Feature Image by Portia Baladad.
Moments before St. Vincent takes the stage, a computerized voice comes over the speakers, asking everyone in attendance to pay attention and not experience it digitally. Meaning, I assume, through a screen.
It sounds silly, but consider this: I read a story recently suggesting that millenials spend something like 30 per cent of their time at concerts looking at screens. Or, in more anecdotal evidence, people all around me at the show were whipping out phones and cameras. I’ll admit I did, too.
Last year, St. Vincent’s self-titled album heralded in a digital age where people look at their TVs like a window, stop sleeping and dreaming, and generally stop living like people. It’s a new frontier and, as Anne Clark said on stage when I caught her live the other day, the gods of technology are “ready to stomp you out like a cigarette.”
Which all sounds like maybe St. Vincent’s music should be bleak or something, that seeing her live would be like watching one of those old black-and-white French existential films. Couldn’t be further from the truth; after catching her live for the first time, I think she’s one of the most exciting people in music right now.
On stage, St. Vincent is a tight machine. Everyone – the drummer, keyboardist, and second guitar player – all move in sync, shuffling around stage like they’re in conveyor belts, making motions like a robotic mannequin and cranking out harsh electric rock. In 2015, St. Vincent’s music has dropped the horn sections and bass player; there’s lots of keyboards, a propulsive beat and Clark’s guitar pyrotechnics.
Older material – “Actor Out of Work,” “Marrow,” and “Cheerleader,” among others, have a slickly electronic feel, but also feel more powerful than the album versions. In part because of all the electronics, sure, but St. Vincent’s guitar is the highlight here: she rips up and down the fretboard, a combination of pedals and gimmicks making her guitar sound like almost anything but a guitar and her solos as exciting as any in rock these days.
I think my favourite effect came when she was playing a green Fender: she’d shuffle to the front of the stage, just rip at the frets for a couple of seconds and shuffle back, turning around, away from the audience; a second later, her guitar part would erupt out of the PA, sounding like some weird analogue keyboard. It was a great mix of delay pedal and choreography and especially showmanship.
If the rehearsed part of the show was interesting, the most exciting stuff came when that fell through.
Maybe I should explain: I saw her during a hot summer afternoon. Not a cloud in the sky, so the sun was beating down on us and her. It’s hot as shit, she says, adding she’s glad to see we’re wearing “protective hats and SPF.” But it is on stage too, and something goes wrong with a keyboard: a tech and the musician start working on something off in one corner. So, St. Vincent takes over, saying she hasn’t played the next song in a while and hopes she remembers all the words; it’s a cover of the Beatles tune “Dig A Pony,” played without a backing band.
There’s a lot of effort and spectacle put into St. Vincent’s stage show these days and it works to great effect, but seeing her playing her guitar unaccompanied was a treat. Without a band crashing behind her, there’s a lot more room for her playing to maneuver. It’s easier to hear the nuances in her playing, the way she bends notes and slides up and down the neck, her finger picking bringing the notes in tight clusters. Pick up any of her records and it’s easy to tell she’s a great guitarist but in a setting like this, under those circumstances, it seems fair to say she’s one of the best in the biz. I mean it!
After a moment or two, everything was fixed and the band came back; a few songs later, they wrapped up with “Krokodil,” one of her most frantic, driving and energetic songs. Maybe she does it at every show, maybe she wanted to raise the stakes after what happened earlier. But as the band pounded on, she gave it a performance, staggering and rolling around, jumping down from the stage and running around, high-fiving fans, shouting and yelling in full stride. As the song wrapped up, she launched back onto the stage and collapsed in a heap.
It was exhilarating, all passion and performance and leaving everyone wanting just that much more. But maybe you had to be there. And maybe you were there, staring into your screen, one of the 70 per cent ignoring her warning. And you could’ve missed it in a flash, St. Vincent shouting and engaging with the fans. I’m glad I was there, an analogue witness to an electric performance.
Freelance writer and music fan, whose writing has appeared on The Good Point, The Toronto Review of Books, and CTV.ca, among other places. Favorite albums: Dig Me Out, Live-Evil, Decade.