You know who’s better than a magic genie? St. Vincent. She grants more than 3 wishes and always over-delivers.
At the end of last year, I summarized my “Top 10 Concerts of The Year” as twelve St. Vincent shows. While nobody overtly disagreed, I did receive some inquiries. People who have been with me for years asked questions including, “No Nine Inch Nails? I mean, according to your tweets, even your bra didn’t survive.”
That is true, and I would include the six NIN shows I experienced in LA, along with those attended in Vegas, among the top shows of 2018 as well. But here’s the distinction: I know what I’m going to get at a Nine Inch Nails concert: consensually assaulted by a wall of lights, soaked (less consensually) in other people’s sweat, mind-blowing, high-energy, banging, badass, best in class, consistently outstanding, rock. Trent Reznor will get in my face. He will acknowledge every individual on his team, and people he knows in the audience, with gratitude. The sound will always be impeccable. I’ve seen how they soundcheck – there won’t be a miss. I have traveled, and will continue to travel, the world to see Nine Inch Nails, because I know what I’m getting, and I love it.
I have also traveled the world to see St. Vincent, and will continue to do so, because I have no fucking idea what I’m going to get, and I love it. What I can count on from St. Vincent is exceptional quality and experiences I will never forget. Yes, there’s a general structure to some St. Vincent shows and a definite aesthetic. Yet, even those shows with elaborate staging and a fairly fixed setlist, are laced with surprises. Prior to other concerts, you’ll often hear the audience speculating about the setlist. Prior to a St. Vincent concert, you’ll hear the crowd speculating about how she’ll “show up”, in an all-encompassing, “what are we in for?”, sense.
Gratefully continuing on my journey through the many expressions of St. Vincent, here’s how St. Vincent has shown up (so far) this year:
January 13, 2019 Malibu Love Sesh @ Hollywood Palladium With Beck and Red Hot Chili Peppers
This concert was a charity event to raise money for the victims of the Woosley Wildfire in California. The show took place at the Hollywood Palladium, which is often associated with rock shows, including the aforementioned 6 nights of Nine Inch Nails a few weeks prior. The line-up consisted of Beck, who played with full band plus special and electrifying guest Jack Black, Red Hot Chili Peppers, who of course played their full-fledged rock show. . . and St. Vincent, who played solo, acoustic.
If you want to case study “how to make an impact”, pay attention to St. Vincent. The other artists played electric, full-band, loud. They jumped, danced, and ran. Flea walked across the stage on his hands while Anthony Kedis tickled him. Beck and Jack Black infused the show with comedy, and Jason Falkner used his guitar like a fishing pole, hooking members of the audience one by one, and then releasing them back into the sea of people.
St. Vincent took the stage alone, acoustic guitar and microphone, and captivated the room. With a set merely 25 minutes in length, performing in front of an audience who was largely there to see Red Hot Chili Peppers (and had largely been drinking since 3pm), the crowd was spellbound.
Initially, I was disappointed when I learned she’d only be playing 25 minutes. However, something happens every time St. Vincent takes the stage: the concept of time, or anything constrained, dissipates. You’re just there, in it. You don’t know where she’ll take you or what’s going to happen, but it will be otherworldly and you’ll remember it.
Midway through her set, St. Vincent did something I’d ordinarily consider “not advisable”. She covered a Red Hot Chili Peppers song, in front of 4,000 hardcore Red Hot Chili Peppers fans, at a Red Hot Chili Peppers show, on acoustic guitar, solo, before Red Hot Chili Peppers took the stage. For many artists – no matter how good they are – that would be an act of self-annihilation. With St. Vincent, the audience sang along. That bold AF move transformed 4,000 Red Hot Chili Peppers fans into 4,000 St. Vincent fans.
The morning after, the headlines:
January 24, 2019 An Evening of Comedy & Song, Hosted by Bobcat Goldthwait w/ St. Vincent, Carrie Brownstein, Sarah Silverman, Fred Armisen, Mike Mills & More!
@ Largo Los Angeles
After providing the live soundtrack for an elaborate comedic ode to Heather Lawless – delivered with deadpan perfection – St. Vincent launched into a medley of Pearl Jam songs she “half remembers”. Ever since the BBC Radio 6 piece featuring Clark playing a series of her favorite guitar riffs, I’d been secretly hoping she’d incorporate something similar into an upcoming performance. Would she do it? How, what, and when? January 24, 2019. At Largo. Pearl Jam. Delightful.
St. Vincent kept the Pearl Jam medley going long enough for the audience to consider that may be the only thing she played that evening. . . and for all to be content with that potential outcome. Then she played Los Ageless and New York, her voice exquisite.
The first two St. Vincent performances of 2019 were benefits to raise money for people in need. For journalists who form hasty conclusions and carelessly print characterizations of Annie Clark, without taking into account the whole of who she is: you can look to examples such as these or speak with anyone who’s worked with her. If you don’t “get it” during an interview, it’s not her, it’s you.
February 10, 2019 The GRAMMY Awards @ Staples Center
Adding to the case study on “how to make an impact”: St. Vincent and Dua Lipa’s “Masseduction / One Kiss” performance at the GRAMMY Awards was the antithesis of everything that preceded it. There was no light show, no elaborate set design, no dancers or stunts. Just two talented people, creating magic and knocking camera operators off their feet:
February 14, 2019 American Songbook @ Lincoln Center With Thomas Bartlett
The way this show unfolded was not only a surprise to the audience, but also to St. Vincent and Thomas Bartlett. Rather than follow a setlist, Clark drew song titles from a box of Russell Stover Valentine’s chocolates (minus the chocolate).
She didn’t always go with what she selected the first. . . second. . . third. .. or fourth time she drew from the box. Her commentary on each discarded draw simultaneously posed a riddle: which song did she pass over?
Meanwhile, at the piano, Bartlett possessed a back-up setlist, which he’d sometimes flash Clark’s way, along with a raised eyebrow and smirk, tempting her back to the safety of the “known”.
“Yeah… I tried ‘chance’. I didn’t like it,” Clark responded, with a laugh, reverting back to the setlist from time-to-time.
The vibe of the show was similar: loose, with the safety net of excellent delivery. Stories and songs were intertwined, providing a highly entertaining, dynamic intercourse. You could watch the stories unfold in Clark’s mind before she spoke them. And, like the songs she pulled from the box of chocolates, there were portions of stories left unspoken. I pondered what she may have been thinking, while she’d smile wryly. At times, I could see her playing with the thoughts in her head, allowing them to dance there, her own personal jesters. The unspoken pieces of the story could be felt.
There’s depth and diversity in all that St. Vincent does. Things are rarely what they appear at surface level. It leaves room for your imagination and creativity to join the show. St. Vincent creates an experience which allows each person to come away with something different, something uniquely theirs.
And because she delivers them differently each time, I gain new perspective and appreciation of songs I’ve heard hundreds of times before. That evening, it was “Masseduction”.
At times, she’d break my heart while sharing a story, or in her delivery of a song. She made me confront feelings I’d rather not feel. Then, she’d make me laugh uncontrollably. The thread between rollercoaster emotions: a beautiful and spectacular performance. St. Vincent creates an environment which allows you to feel extreme emotions and explore them safely. It’s not a concert, it’s art.
Self-proclaimed as “not known for love songs”, St. Vincent’s performance on Valentine’s night did indulge in the theme of love: that moment you realize you’re doing what you’re doing for people who don’t love you; coming to terms with the fact that loving someone doesn’t negate their pain; finding strength and hope in love to pull you through darkness. Granted, not your typical romantic ideas of love, but the complex earnest truths.
Bartlett and Clark concluded the show with “Smoking Section”, at Bartlett’s request. “It’s fucked up,” he declared, “but we should end with ‘Smoking Section’.” I smiled because, while I don’t request songs, that thought was brewing in my mind as well. Then, Clark did what she does, and a song which explores the depths of darkness and desolation becomes a comforting mantra and glimmer of hope.
I look forward to seeing how St. Vincent shows up next…
Monday, February 11, 2019 Broad Stage, Santa Monica, CA
For whom or what would you risk your life? People often say they would risk their lives for their loved ones, but how many of us put our lives on the line, on a daily basis, to stand up for equality, human rights, and justice for people we’ve never met? I wasn’t thinking about this during Pussy Riot‘s appearance and performance at The Broad Stage Monday night, but I haven’t been able to stop thinking about it since.
Founding member, Nadya Tolokonnikova, and Pussy Riot were among the activists who participated in the Broad Stage series Artists Talk: Artists, Activism, and Agency. The evening began with a discussion and Q&A about art, Punk, culture, and language as vehicles to instigate change. The panel included Shepard Fairey, Catherine Opie, Tavares Strachan, and Tolokonnikova.
Throughout the conversation, Tolokonnikova reinforced the importance of moving beyond conversation and the need to take bold action. “I was so pissed at all those people just talking. Sometimes talking can be useful but, for me, it was just too much. You’re not doing enough.”
In regard to Putin serving multiple terms as President of Russia, and her desire to incite change, Tolokonnikova remarked, “I have to put all my energy and all my time into trying to do something with it. I realized at the time I would never succeed in doing it, but I would never forgive myself. . . I’m going to try. . . That, for me, is justice. . . Fuck abstract ideas.”
Though the issues Tolokonnikova and Pussy Riot take a stand for may seem insurmountable, their efforts have illuminated injustices and prompted positive change. In 2013, during her prison sentence, Tolokonnikova went on a hunger strike and reported on the inhumane treatment of women in prison, including the use of women prisoners for slave labor. She remained vocal about the injustices throughout and after her prison term. Late last year, Russian officials announced that the head of the prison colony and several other officials had been dismissed after an inspection revealed female convicts were being tortured and forced to work under slave-labor conditions.
“Apparently, Tolokonnikova was correct,” FSIN Deputy Director Valery Maksimenko told TASS on December 24.
Though it took several years, Tolokonnikova is pleased with the outcome. “That is a big move because the next head of prison will be scared of using slave labor, probably, because he doesn’t want to be in jail as well. . . So just believe in yourself and some time – not necessarily tomorrow or the day after tomorrow or in two years, maybe sometime in 10 years – you will see the results.”
Tolokonnikova spoke about how Pussy Riot utilized Punk Rock to incite change in Russia by playing concerts outside, in public spaces, including Red Square. “It was a quite dangerous act . . . For Russia, in 2011, to play in a venue is not impactful enough. Maybe it used to be back in the days. But it wasn’t that impactful… When you’re Punk, you shouldn’t just think about the aesthetics, you should think about the impact you can have on social and political life.”
Following the discussion, Tolokonnikova and fellow Pussy Riot members performed new songs and teased a future release. The performance was powerful. There were striking and disturbing images on screen juxtaposed with nursery-rhyme melodies; hard-hitting lyrics and beats, followed by blood curdling screams. Tolokonnikova took it further, directly confronting the audience with her words and ideas, by taking a power stance and locking eyes with the crowd as she sang.
Midway through their set, the music was further punctuated by a video which explained just how dangerous it is for Pussy Riot to make music. The video detailed a multitude of topics which, in Russia, are not legal to incorporate in music and art. They include themes we take for granted in the United States, protected by freedom of expression: alcohol, religion, non-traditional relationships, positive attitudes about sex, etc. Essentially, if Pussy Riot – and other musicians in Russia – abide by those laws, they cannot make their art. Simply writing songs could land Pussy Riot in prison again.
Yet, Pussy Riot continues to write and perform songs, to risk their safety and their lives, not only for art, but for humanity, justice, and equality. Should we all put our lives on the line for political and social change? Looking at the world today, the argument could be made that we should.
While I have been active and working to promote positive change in many ways, I cannot get Tolokonnikova’s words, “you’re not doing enough” echoing along with all that she and Pussy Riot have done and continue to do, out of my mind. What else will I do? I’ve been considering that since I saw Pussy Riot perform a week ago and I’m not entirely sure. However, I am starting by supporting Pussy Riot every way I’m able.
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.
It’s happened. After a 2 1/2 year hiatus from Rock Is A Girl’s Best Friend, St. Vincent has inspired me to write again.
During the past few years, I’ve been to hundreds of additional concerts, several of them outstanding. I’ve considered writing about some of those shows, but then life moved on, another show happened, and the backlog grew greater than Game of Thrones, thus becoming insurmountable. So here we are: nearly halfway through 2018. . . and I can’t stop thinking about a show I experienced 6 nights ago, nor the St. Vincent shows which preceded it earlier this year.
Now I have a new challenge: finding the words to describe Annie Clark and what it feels like to go on a journey with St. Vincent. Every adjective that comes to mind feels cliche when I consider using it in conjunction with Clark or her work. Some say “genius” and I agree, she is brilliant. “Genius” can infer that things come easy, but it’s Clark’s passion and dedication, in conjunction with her brilliance that consistently raise the bar with everything she does. What she puts into her music, art, storytelling, and shows, is undeniable – and potentially undefinable – when you experience it.
She’s exceptionally thoughtful, seemingly about everything she does. From writing to recording, production, artwork, creative vision, humorous album rollout, unconventional ‘press conference’, and performance. It’s clear her intention is to deliver the highest quality in all that she creates, and she does so masterfully. While thoughtful, it doesn’t feel contrived. It’s not a construct of her mind “thinking”. It’s the way she creates, and you can feel it coming from the heart (a cliche, but not in this case). You feel how deeply she cares, and that she cares because she’s creating for you.
The best analogy I can think of to describe Clark is the Galapagos. There are species which exist only in the Galapagos, nowhere else on the planet. Within the archipelago itself, there are plants and animals which exist solely on one of the islands, not the others. Traveling through the Galapagos, we saw things we’d never encountered before, which could not be defined by any word in our vocabulary nor fit into a familiar category. There was a bird-creature which looked most like a flamingo, but wasn’t; and a tree with the trunk of a palm tree, but each of its colossal branches resembled a pine tree. The brain short-circuits a bit, trying to make sense of what you’re seeing, and you become overwhelmed with awe. When you ask a Naturalist, “What is that??”, you learn there is no common word for it, just binomial nomenclature defining its genus and species. Terms you’ll likely not remember unless you’re fluent in Latin.
Now that we’ve established Clark is like the Galapagos and no description can do her justice, I will face the challenge and attempt to share my experience of seeing St. Vincent live. Perhaps it will inspire you to do the same. If I had resumed writing sooner, I would have covered St. Vincent Fear The Future at The Palladium in January, as well as I’m A Lot Like You at The Orpheum in April. Both are among the best shows I’ve experienced and similarly left me without words sufficient to describe them.
Fear The Future was an innovative and bold exploration of St. Vincent’s evolution. Clark played solo, performing select songs from her earlier work, chronologically, culminating with a performance of her latest release, Masseduction, start to finish. As you journeyed through the time capsule with St. Vincent, song by song, another layer was peeled away, and you got to delve deeper. Visually, during the retrospective portion of the show, panels were removed from the stage, one by one, revealing more of St. Vincent each time. In my interpretation, an allegory for the evolution of Clark and her music. She is allowing us in further, revealing more, courageous in the face of vulnerability, powerful in Masseduction.
If anyone else were doing it, the show at The Orpheum in April would have been considered a “warm up” for Coachella and festival season. However, the way Clark did it, this initial performance of I’m A Lot Like You transformed the intimate indoor venue into a boundless space, which felt even larger than a festival. The band was back this time around, along with immersive lighting and visuals. The show was thematically, sonically, and visually powerful. Then, as we traveled toward the few remaining songs, Clark spoke about love and imagining the many experiences people must have shared in the venue historically. Her badassery and strength is rooted in her humanity and heart. The show transcended space, time, and form. I was not an audience member at a concert, we were not on Earth. I was 100% sober, having a phenomenal trip. That’s when I committed to seeing St. Vincent at least once more this year.
“Rattlesnake” at The Orpheum – April 11, 2018
Prior to the cancellation of FYF Fest, and with persistent reminders that nothing else of this caliber was happening, certainly not with any frequency, I started looking into other cities where I could experience St. Vincent and the I’m A Lot Like You tour again. I love traveling and especially enjoy going to concerts in unfamiliar places, where adventure and discovery are inherent, the people and sights are new. I settled on Charlotte, North Carolina. Tickets purchased, car rented, hotel booked. After wandering downtown, exploring museums and parks, I made my way to The Fillmore in time for the VIP Q&A. What was it like?
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, and without words, has a way of imparting that she is doing this for you; she sincerely cares. She doesn’t merely make you feel that way, it emanates from her core. It’s who she is.
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.
Her responses were similarly manifold and meaningful. While everyone was just getting to know each other in that moment, the vibe and conversation was more akin to gathering in a living room with long-time, good, friends. It offered insight into how Clark is so attune, empathetic, and able to deeply connect. Extrapolating the attentiveness with which she listens to people to how she must observe and intake the world, I got a glimpse into Clark’s creative proficiency (and potentially, her oft referenced anxiety).
Equally magical to experience was Clark’s presence. We live in a world with infinite distractions, devices, and 140-character attention spans, but Clark is wholly present. That is a gift which breaks down the barrier of time. We all have access to a time machine – it’s our own presence and attentiveness in any given moment. Clark does it so skillfully, she brings everyone along for the ride. Experiencing this during the intimate conversation, illuminated how St. Vincent shows transcend space and time.
After thanking us for being there and acknowledging each “thank you” in return, Clark disappeared to get ready for the show, and the rest of us continued the conversation. The doors opened and the venue filled quickly. People traveled from around the country to be there. I don’t recall meeting one person who was from Charlotte, North Carolina. The energy shifted from quiet evening at home with friends to anticipation of the biggest party of the year. The forthcoming show would be spectacular, not taken for granted, but a given – it’s St. Vincent. Throughout the evolution, Clark’s commitment to quality remains constant.
The house lights dimmed, the band took the stage, and St. Vincent took us on another journey, kicking off, full force, with “Sugarboy”. I am not one of those people who “forgets to eat”, but I could watch Clark play guitar for days on end and imagine I would forget to eat. It is captivating. The earlier conversation among friends was now amplified on stage: Clark is someone who cares deeply about humanity, putting forth the best, and who doesn’t simply “deliver”, but magnetically invites and transports you to a spectacular, limitless place.
The band is outstanding, the show is magnificent, Clark’s voice and performance impeccable, you get lost in the way she commands the guitar. There’s silence, followed by an uproar of cheers when she hits the high notes in “Young Lover.” There was no doubt she would do it, but people created the space to absorb and then celebrate each moment.
Even though I know how the song goes, I always forget how hard “Huey Newton” hits. That’s by design and it works every time. The same holds true for “Digital Witness”, “Masseduction”, “Marrow” and each song in the setlist. All the times I’ve heard these songs and seen them performed live, and they feel new and astonishing with each performance.
It feels personal. You can be surrounded by hundreds or tens of thousands of people, and feel as though Clark is performing specifically, and solely, for you. A friend of mine, who saw St. Vincent in Manchester in 2014 told me of his experience, “I think she felt the joy I was receiving from the show, so she kept giving me more.” If you read Tweets or Instagram posts following St. Vincent shows, you will see similar sentiments echoed: “she winked at me,” “she smiled at me”, “she played to me”. . .
During the gathering-of-friends conversation earlier in the night, I asked if she now knows what to do should she encounter a rattlesnake in the wild. There was laughter and some suggestions from people in the room. But St. Vincent’s answer to the question came hours later, when she performed “Rattlesnake”. She stepped forward, acknowledged me with a playful and daring look, and then dropped to her knees and responded:
The more present you are, the more immersed you become, the harder you go, the harder she goes. Presence makes the concept of time vanish and communion eliminates the physical space. You are transported, transfixed, and transformed.
What came through most strongly to me is that Clark desires that everyone is well and happy, living their best life. And if she can contribute to that creatively, it’s what she wants to do – it’s what she’s here to do. Between songs, she acknowledges and responds to each shouted “I love you,” just as she shared in the moments of gratitude with us during the earlier conversation. The show concludes, and you walk away with that reflection of gratitude, strength, vulnerability, community, support, energy, badassness, happiness, and love. I’m A Lot Like You. Go.
In addition to their music, what makes this gathering so special is the humanity, connection, joy, and presence The Watkins Family exudes.
The spirit in the room feels festive and light. It’s a gathering of good friends, who’ve come together to celebrate and share stories, songs and laughter. The dynamic interaction between those on stage is shared with all in attendance. The musicians have a long history with each other, but they make sure to let the audience in on their inside jokes. With their presence and openness, The Watkins Family unites us all.
Their music carries a similar inclusive, dynamic, and evolving energy. Thanks to the tone The Watkins Family sets and Largo‘s no-cell-phone policy, it is a completely immersive experience. You can get lost in the sound, hear how each note plays off the other, and the way the instruments and voices work together, each elevating the other. Rather than simply play their part, the musicians listen to and accompany each other. It is a live music experience in the purest sense. Created in front of you, the songs feel different each time they’re played. The Watkins Family Hour is a monthly residency that has spanned more than a decade, yet the show is still refreshing, unique, and anticipation for the next one never wanes.
The dynamic atmosphere is balanced with a sense of history and tradition. Whether you’re attending your first Watkins Family Hour show or your thirty-first, it feels as though you’ve been there since the beginning. The Watkins Family transports you to another time and place, where all there is to do is enjoy music and our time together.
There are no computers, fog machines, nor fancy lighting rigs. You may feel like you’ve been invited to a family gathering at one of their homes, especially when Sean and Sara sing while standing beneath a homemade snow machine, getting doused by white flakes. Last night, The Watkins Family reminded us not to take things too seriously and to embrace and express our childlike spirit. With the snow machine and humorous elves, they also gave us the gift of another inside joke and “you had to be there” moment.
There’s music, comedy, and last night, there was snow. You can’t Auto-Tune this and it won’t translate in virtual reality. The Watkins take you on a journey which, like life, is ever-changing and more fun to navigate with music, a sense of humor, and surrounded by family and good friends.