St. Vincent and The Art of Surprise
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
This event was a fundraiser for a 12-year-old who had recently been diagnosed with brain and spinal cord cancer.
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…