Last night, I had the amazing opportunity to see St Vincent play live at The Moore in Seattle. I have been a fan of St Vincent since college, and once I realized I had the chance not only to go to a live concert in Seattle but to go see HER, I knew it had to be. (Working in theatre PLUS my work schedule precludes me from being able to attend most live concerts, meaning last year I missed out on Nada Surf and The Long Winters.) What I experienced last night was unlike any live concert I have ever seen. Everyone in my balcony was (mostly) seated. At times, I wanted to get up and dance, but I knew to do so would be to tear my eyes away, and that was the last thing I wanted.
St Vincent is a visceral, practiced explosion that demands attention, and forces the viewer and listener to experience Annie Clark on her own terms. I find this more than admirable; it’s fucking aspirational.
I’m sure St Vincent’s Digital Witness Tour is like nothing else she has ever done. (How long has she been doing choreography to her songs when performing live?) Videos of her in years past and anecdotes I have heard from friends described her as more frenetic and photos show as her a brunette waif who would surprise beyond shy smiles. Now, the St Vincent American Digital Witness Tour is a commanding, well-crafted theatrical performance piece. There is nothing onstage that is not useful, therefore there is nothing superfluous. Guitars, microphones, and theremins were never onstage until they had to be. Even when guitars didn’t need to be onstage, they were removed by a dedicated tech.
There is no set list on the stage, because everyone in the group knows what will come next. I appreciated this precision, because it speaks close to my heart. St Vincent had a script, and they followed it, perfectly memorized. Twenty songs, three poems, one introduction, and a single costume change. [OMG all I want is a picture of her performing “Strange Mercy” in that amazing shoulder-bound crop top mini-skirt ensemble please] Even though I never knew what song would come next, I soon learned to trust Annie Clark and the band. They had chosen the best songs from her catalogue of four albums. They placed them in a perfect order, that I could never have imagined. And I can’t picture it any other way.
Expression Within Constraints
My coworker (also a fan of St Vincent and a talented career musician) pointed out that with such constraint to be performed over and over again, where is the spontaneity? Music, more than theatre, thrives on the spontaneous and human nature infused into the performance. The musicians onstage are not typically playing a character separate from themselves. However, this isn’t really true for Annie Clark/St Vincent, is it? Annie Clark is choosing to perform as St Vincent, so why shouldn’t the character be an android-like guitar-shredding goddess who forces us to watch when and how she wants?
The spontaneity comes from the same place an actor finds spontaneity performing the same play three nights a week for five weeks in a row. There is a comfort in restraint. Performers who have a repeated pattern so well practiced can do their choreography and lyrics and guitar licks as second nature. I’m sure there was improvisation to the night during the poetry/patter, guitar solos, and certainly during the writhing onstage for “Krokodil.” The light board operator and band knew the points where would return, so they knew to wait and let her play how she would until then.
Besides the constraints of choreography – even during moments where you could expect her and her guitarist, Toko Yasuda, to improvise moments because there was nothing “set,” they were either still or precisely moved to the beat – St Vincent found times to be spontaneous. Not only during the writhing of “Krokodil” (part of the encore/costume change portion) but earlier, during “Prince Johnny,” as she slowly rolled down her platform to arrive in a reverse crucifix. Rolling down a huge box platform takes presence of mind required by performers who have marks to hit but know that every night will be slightly different. As she slowly rolled down the pink tiered platform, I was laughing. As soon as she hit her pose, I was thinking about the bigger message she was conveying.
Then black out.
Every song ended with a quick black out. There were only a couple of slow fades, but in between every song, they performers used the opportunity to shift places onstage and begin each number with mystery about the transitions. In between the black outs were flashy-as-hell lights. I felt like I was underwater, in a night club, under the assault of high beams, and everything in between. The lights were gorgeous. They reflected off of her gray hair and the white outfits of the band and the pale pink tiered platform in a gorgeous way. Despite her appearing in darkness to me up in the balcony, I could see where the foot lights were going to make some gorgeous photos. Brooklyn Benjestorf at The Stranger got some GEMS:
No Patter, Only Poetry
St Vincent did not speak until after her third song. Throughout the night, she only spoke four times: three “Poems for Seattle” (that’s what I’m calling them) and band introductions before her final final song. Every time she spoke, it was perfect. A friend of mine who was at the show is convinced the pieces were improvised, as am I, because some of them were very specific to Seattle. She began the first by saying that she felt like we were all similar to her growing up, then proceeded to describes scenes from our lives as Seattle-ites. “…And once when you were single, you went to the house from Singles, and shed a single tear… I actually did that.”
At the end, she said she was happy to have gotten to know every single one of us and it made me feel warm and fuzzy, despite not knowing this character or performer hardly at all. In my admiration for her sense of privacy and self-awareness of how to cultivate and maintain a performance character, I often find myself thinking about how well any of us truly know each other. We all choose what to express and how and when to express it. Each and every one us controls how and when people see us. St Vincent reminds us to embrace and harness this power.
St Vincent, despite being a “girl in rock music,” will shred your fucking face off. This one of the reasons she is amazing, along with the exquisite beauty, indelible mystery, impenetrable lyrics, wicked rhythms, sweet melodies, etc. But sometimes I think it is the face-shredding that is the most important. St Vincent’s American Digital Witness Tour is a visceral experience, like an opera.
As the night progressed – culminating in the most EPIC performance of “Your Lips Are Red” from her 2007 album and she didn’t even do the whole song – she got more wild, expressing herself within the constraints more and more. Her movements, still choreographed, became more and more wild. Then black out. And the guitar parts became unreal. She bent over, jerked her legs, shuffled around the stage, and continued to perform as precisely as when she first began but there was something new, something unleashed. It was like she stuck a knife in my gut, exposing the deepest underbelly of my emotions…
…while never exposing any part of herself. She is a true surgeon, and I love her.
St Vincent at The Moore in Seattle, March 26, 2014.