The Many Expressions of St. Vincent (2018 edition)
December 31, 2018
My top 10 concerts of 2018 are: twelve St. Vincent shows.
I’ve been to thousands of concerts around the world. For more than a decade, I’d go to 350+ shows each year. I have yet to see anyone do what Annie Clark does, let alone in the span of a single year.
Some artists, including Maynard, Trent Reznor, and Jack White, create new personas or launch side projects to work with other artists or explore different dimensions of their art and music (often there are business reasons for this as well). Thus far, Annie Clark has accomplished this all within St. Vincent.
She is multi-faceted, transcendent, embraces the complexities of life and relationships as well as the unpredictable and transforms it into art. She has built a relationship with those listening which supports and celebrates everything St. Vincent is and her dynamic creative expressions.
When asked “why” I might go to more than one St. Vincent show: each show is vastly – and subtly – different. Let go of expectations, don’t worry about the set list, forget your pre-show selfie. Be present and St. Vincent will create the experience with you. Each show unfolds uniquely in that moment in time, in concert with the city, venue, the people in the audience, her day – as well as yours – leading up to the show.
While, thematically, her songs tend to fall on the darker side, her shows embody possibility, spontaneity, are infused with wit and humor, take you to another world, and provide community. What’s consistent from show to show is the quality, and an experience which seems to top itself every time. Like a good relationship, the greater the foundation and understanding, the deeper you can go.
While no substitute for having your own experience, here’s a taste of my journey with St. Vincent this year. This is not intended to be comprehensive, just some musings on each show. So much of what happens is magic, in the moment, and cannot be described. I’m not one to discuss the moments which move me the most either, and with St. Vincent there are many. So know that what you read and see here is nothing compared to what you will experience when you see St. Vincent live.
January 25: Fear The Future @ Hollywood Palladium
This show coincided with my self-imposed two week break from drinking to train for a marathon. The thought of leaving the house, traversing Los Angeles, battling traffic, parking in Hollywood, Hollywood, crowds, without the aid and “reward” of a few drinks was daunting. It’s possible this was the first time I’d be at a concert entirely sober. Would it be “as good”? I did consider staying home, but remembered the first time I saw St. Vincent perform a decade ago, and trusted the experience would be more powerful and rewarding than a drink, and well worth overcoming the pain points of leaving home.
To minimize contact with others, and enjoy a clear line of sight, I started off at the back of the venue, on the raised platform near the sound booth. St. Vincent took the stage, without a band, seemingly also embracing solitude among a crowd. Without utilizing an overt storytelling gimmick, the show told a story. As she took us through a retrospective of her earlier work, revealing more and more of the stage and herself with each song, I felt like I was being sucked into a vortex toward the stage. I fought it, stood with my feet firmly planted in my “safe place”, and marveled at St. Vincent’s ability to draw me in from the back of the room while simultaneously engaging everyone between us.
Soon enough, the pull overtook me. I began moving forward, careful not to disturb others entranced in the show, and arrived stage right, 3 rows from the rail. During that moment, St. Vincent was playing directly to the audience stage left. Within one minute of my arriving, she turned, pointed, and sang the next line of the song in my direction. Whether or not it was the case, it felt as though she knew what I was feeling, and genuinely appreciated and acknowledged my being there. Her awareness and responsiveness to the time, space, energy and people in the room is part of what makes each show unique.
After taking us on a journey through her previous work, St. Vincent performed each song on her latest album (at that time), Masseduction. Rather than launch a new album and tour the “expected route”, with a full band, St. Vincent boldly chose to take the stage alone. It made sense (to me), given the show and story she was sharing. That’s among the things I respect most about Annie Clark: if she makes a decision to do (or not do) something, it’s to further the art.
April 11: I’m A Lot Like You @ Orpheum LA
Welcome back, band. Hello lights and video. Goodbye walls, doors, ceilings, floors. Holy fuck – watch her shred. All the elements work together, creating a spectacular, immersive, otherworldly musical playground. The production value is off the charts. The show and everyone who worked on it should win an award. I envisioned the kids at Coachella losing their shit over this the following 2 weekends. It’s also when “Rattlesnake” became one of my favorite songs to experience live.
May 21: I’m A Lot Like You (VIP + out of state) @ The Fillmore, Charlotte, North Carolina
At this point in the year, I had been to. . . a lot. . . of shows, and none of them moved nor engaged me the way St. Vincent did. FYF Fest (where I had intended to next see St. Vincent) had been cancelled. I knew I wanted to see the I’m A Lot Like You show again and a cancelled festival wasn’t going to stop me.
I decided to go somewhere I’d never been, Charlotte, North Carolina, and to purchase the VIP ticket upgrade which included a pre-show performance and conversation (“Q&A”) with St. Vincent. If you’ve never been to a concert in an unfamiliar city, state, or country, I recommend it. The energy and experience is completely different, as is your perspective when you’re in a new place. I began my adventure with coffee, a walk around the city, and a pass through some parks and museums, and then made my way to the venue.
Clark entered the room, proclaiming her outfit “Unabomber Chic” and sang a couple songs, acoustic. No lights, set, band, visuals, nor elaborate wardrobe, and still able to transport us from the physical world we know to a timeless place and dreamlike state. Her voice is spectacular and mesmerizing. She’s playful and entirely present. She is genuine and generous.
Following the songs, what was billed as a “Q&A” (for lack of a better description, I imagine) was a dynamic conversation. Clark asked us questions, and we shared stories and asked her questions. In response to any topic, Clark has a relevant and entertaining story. There are as many funny asides as there are “answers”. This is when I saw something else magnificent in Clark: she is an exceptional listener. Any time someone asked a question or shared a story, she listened well beyond the words they were speaking, absorbing the subtext, inflections, tone, and body language, and would respond to the often unspoken, but actual crux of the conversation. (In a related aside, I had the opportunity to hear Maynard speak and play at The Grammy Museum a few months later. There, he noted that the most important skill a musician can have is to be a good listener. “It’s a listening process,” he said. Exhibit A: St. Vincent).
When St. Vincent returned to the stage with the full band, wall of lights, and wardrobe, she, the venue, and audience were transformed. The show begins with the band entering and taking their places, one by one. The first step St. Vincent takes as she crosses the stage is where the journey into another dimension begins.
One benefit of seeing a show multiple times is that you can focus on and absorb additional aspects of the show each time. Watching her play guitar masterfully, feeling her connect with each of us and every member of the band, the sound, energy and lights elevating us. The exchange of energy between us fueled the show. The harder we went, the harder they went. This could not – and would not – be the last time I saw this show.
July 31: I’m A Lot Like You (out of country) @ Sony Centre, Toronto
Another two months of going to concerts, some excellent, but none exceptional. I wanted to experience “I’m A Lot Like You” again. I love Canada, but hadn’t been to Toronto yet, so it seemed a sensible option. I was concerned about the venue – a seated theatre – for the rock show. I don’t like sitting still on a good day, and there’s no way I was sitting down for this show. I called the venue in advance. “If the music moves you to stand up and dance, that’s what you should do!’ Ticket purchased, flight and hotel booked.
Cruel: I was lost in the song, visually immersed in the lights and sounds. When I turned my attention back to Annie, she seemed to be focused entirely stage right. She would step forward and left for guitar solos, and then specifically turn and sing to the right, laser focused on one location or person. When I succumbed and looked to my left, a woman standing next to me was singing the lyrics along with St. Vincent, with a comforted smile and tears streaming down her face. Without taking anything away from the audience as a whole, St. Vincent gifted the song to someone who most needed it.
September 10: With Florence and The Machine @ Key Arena, Seattle
Was it an excuse to go to Seattle or was Seattle an excuse to see another St. Vincent show? What I wasn’t aware of when I made this decision is that this was the kick off show of Florence and The Machine’s tour, which is the reason many other people traveled from around the country to be there.
In my experience, an audience comprised of people who have traveled, lined up early in the morning or the night before if the venue allows, dehydrate themselves so they don’t have to miss a second of the concert, makes for an even more charged, energetic show. Most people I spoke with prior to the show hadn’t seen St. Vincent live, and it was fun to experience the show alongside them. It was also the final concert at Key Arena until it re-opens after changing ownership and being remodeled. The staff and security teams were reminiscing about the venue, shared stories and history with me. The room was ready.
The venue: perhaps not quite as prepared. Notorious for sub-par sound. Doors were held an additional 30 minutes, sometimes indicative of sound or tech issues that arise during soundcheck. I wouldn’t have given much weight to doors being held if vocals could have been heard in the mix, stage right. Whatever was happening with the sound during the first few songs, the only impact it appeared to have on St. Vincent is that she played even more furiously. The people around me who had not seen her perform previously, loved it and vowed to see her when she next plays their town.
September 18: Solo Acoustic Guitar benefit concert @ Santa Fe Opera, New Mexico
Santa Fe Opera is potentially the most beautiful setting for a concert. An outdoor amphitheater, with wonderful sound, kind staff, and the sun setting behind the stage. This was a benefit concert for Noise for Now. Andrew Bird and St. Vincent donated their time and performances to raise money and awareness in support of women’s healthcare rights and services.
Solo, on acoustic guitar, St. Vincent shared humorous observations and stories between songs. The Fear The Future and I’m A Lot Like You shows are so big and well executed, it doesn’t feel like anything is “missing”. This show was a reminder that I did miss St. Vincent’s quick wit and stories. They exist in the produced shows as well, woven into the production, videos, and her expressions, though not verbally articulated, the way only she can. She is a brilliant storyteller. She’s entertaining and engaging throughout, yet you don’t know where the story is going until you get there. Like her music, she doesn’t take the direct path, and the payoff is much greater for it. This was also the first time I’d heard the songs from Masseduction performed acoustically. Santa Fe provided the best backdrop for St. Vincent’s vocals. Her voice seemed to be carried by the light breeze. It was simply a beautiful show.
September 28: St. Vicious DJ set (and free gift with purchase show) @ Hollywood Bowl
I call this the “free gift with purchase show” because I already had tickets to see Beck. So when it was later announced that St. Vincent would be opening the Beck show with a DJ set, that was a free, and much appreciated, gift. I’d heard about St. Vicious’s DJ sets at various festivals and hoped I’d have the opportunity to experience it.
While maintaining the integrity of, and honoring, the original songs, St. Vicious gave the songs new life. It was fun, provocative, inspiring, and energetic, and left me looking forward to more.
October 2: Intimate Evening with St. Vincent and Thomas Bartlett @ Belasco LA (launch of Masseducation)
I typically don’t think of myself as ranking or categorizing shows. People ask me all the time, “which was better?” Each is its own experience and I either appreciate and enjoy it or I leave. There are some artists I know I can count on to consistently deliver an exceptional experience, but in my head I thought I loved all 5 of them equally. So I was surprised at my own self when the words “you just sailed right past Nine Inch Nails” went through my mind during this show. Apparently, I had held Nine Inch Nails “at the top” and if I’d thought about it previously, would not have expected a show featuring solely piano and vocals to rival what Nine Inch Nails does on stage. That is how powerful an Intimate Evening with St. Vincent is.
An Intimate Evening with St. Vincent and Thomas Bartlett consists of a stripped down, elegant stage, Thomas on piano and St. Vincent providing vocals. There’s no guitar, band, light show, video screens. All the songs we’ve come to know on guitar take new life on piano. It’s unrehearsed, yet masterful.
There are only 3 times in my life when I’ve needed to consciously remind myself to breathe: Scuba diving, another time, and this show. I don’t think I moved (and it’s been well established I’m not a good sitter downer) the entire time.
Without the guitar, the emphasis is on St. Vincent’s voice and the way she and Thomas work together to communicate the songs. Without the layered sounds and slick production, stripped bare, the songs emerge in their own power.
A glass of tequila and the mic became the centerpiece “props” at times. The way St. Vincent holds the mic and impressions of other musicians holding the mic made for entertaining onstage banter. She whips the mic cable seductively, adding emphasis at key moments before or during a song.
The subtleties of her voice and body language become more pronounced. Each note adds meaning and she physically expresses the songs throughout her body and beyond the tips of her fingers. Between songs, St. Vincent entertains us with stories, observations, and gives us insight into a language only she and Thomas share.
The moment she “sailed past Nine Inch Nails”? She hit a note during “Smoking Section” I think she invented. It was breathtaking. Not just that note, but where and how it punctuated the way she performed the song that night. Fuck.
October 5: Outdoor show @ Stubb’s Austin
With FYF Fest cancelled, I hadn’t seen “I’m A Lot Like You” outside, nor full-festival scale production. I had been to Austin City Limits Festival once before and loved it. In my opinion, it had the best line-up of US festivals this year and I’d have the opportunity to see St. Vincent’s festival show. Of course, when this additional ACL Late Show was announced, it was a must-do.
The vibe of this show was joyous, playful, and fun. Anyone who was within the first 15-20 rows from the rail made the decision to skip Paul McCartney to be here instead. Like traveling from around the country, that collective crowd passion and energy help amplify the experience. There were no video screens and the compact nature of the stage made it easy to absorb the whole show, without switching focal points or attention. It felt like a private party. Music, connection, artist, audience, all celebrated. To be among a crowd of thousands, be seen and feel understood, is a gift St. Vincent gives time and time again. The chaos of the world outside replaced by the chaos we chose to create inside.
October 6: Festival production @ ACLFest, Austin
10 months into the year, I’m treated to the full-scale festival production of I’m A Lot Like You. The videos add dimension to the songs and the positioning of the screens allows them to interplay with the band. You can watch the videos, you can watch the band, or you can “zoom out” and see how the images onscreen interact with the band. Sometimes humorous, sometimes disturbing. During the intimate shows, St. Vincent offers insight into what she’s thinking. At this show, the videos provide a glimpse into how she sees.
Again, it was the first time many people I spoke to had seen St. Vincent perform live. Hearing and seeing their reactions to the show was a blast. “She looks like a superhero,” a woman remarked to her friend. “She IS a superhero!’ her friend replied. “Best show of ACL!” someone else shouted.
One of my favorite moments was watching Annie and Toko having so much fun playing “Masseduction” (video below the video below). Another highlight was “New York”.
For all the times I’ve seen St. Vincent, I don’t think I’ve ever heard her play or sing a song precisely the same way twice. This makes the guitar solos particularly fun to watch and hear. And if you pay close attention, you’ll appreciate vocal changes, nods and references unique to that performance. Sometimes I think even she’s surprised by the direction the song takes.
October 29: I’m A Lot Like You tour wrap up @ Hollywood Palladium
After each show, the tour dates section of St. Vincent’s website shrunk. The year winding down, I was filled with gratitude for all the mind-blowing shows to date and felt greedy longing for more… yet, I continued holding onto hope. Dream-come-true. A late addition and the final show of the I’m A Lot Like You tour in 2018. This show was recorded in a multi-camera shoot (as was the Intimate Evening at The Belasco) for a mysterious future release.
This was everything I love about live music, expressed through St. Vincent. Some highlights:
“Hysterical Strength” – Matt Johnson’s next-level what-the-fuck drumming.
Everything St. Vincent did on guitar.
”Fear The Future” – gets me every time. Especially this time.
“Marrow”, “Cruel”, “New York”…. Everything. The whole fucking thing.
November 20: An Intimate Evening with St. Vincent and Thomas Bartlett @ BAM Brooklyn
Looking back on the thousands of concerts I’ve been to, including those “once in a lifetime” secret shows, without fully ranking them, I can say An Intimate Evening with St. Vincent and Thomas Bartlett at Brooklyn Academy of Music is easily in the top 5.
If I had to sum it up in three words I haven’t used yet, they would be: “Cheerleader” and “The Bed”.
Have I had enough? No. I’d like to experience as many expressions of St. Vincent as she’s willing to share.
In between scheduled tour dates, interviews, TV, and radio appearances, she was speaking and participating in a “concert experiment” at Cannes Lion, live scoring a film during Natalie Portman’s series at Boston Calling, producing and collaborating with other artists, inspiring other musicians by participating in clinics, appearing on panels and speaking at events supporting women, playing art museum fundraisers and donating her time to shows in support of charities, performing a tribute to Philip Glass during the Kennedy Center Honors, inviting students to the venue before the show, playing a few songs for them and offering guidance and encouragement for them to pursue their passions. This is merely what I’m aware of. I imagine her dedication to art and humanity extends well beyond what is noted here. All of this, coupled with the person I’ve come to know through the journey this year, equates to perhaps the purest – and my favorite – expression of St. Vincent: Annie Clark.