I’ve always been a little skeptical of St. Vincent. Heaps of praise, glowing reviews, widespread (among a certain indie-loving crowd) adulation. I’ve also always been a little bit ambivalent about St. Vincent. On the scale of zero to worship, I’m a vigorous meh. I can pick out a few tracks per album that engage me, throw them on my iPod and I’m not displeased when they pop up on shuffle. With every subsequent album she garners greater buzz, more press and I’m forced to reconsider my meh.
With the release of her latest LP, Strange Mercy, I repeated this process. Same result. So I decided to take my investigation further. I bought a ticket to her show at the Altar Bar. Her live shows had been gaining a notable reputation for rocking your socks off (even by Tenacious D standards) and I wanted to call shenanigans. I’d seen her perform on the late night TV circuit barely mobile in her slinky black dress, the composed and proper indie darling. The grapevine (i.e. Twitter) told me otherwise. The grapevine told me she goes balls out for the plebes. There’s nowhere better to engage with an artist than at a live show – the soul of the music and the artist, laid bare. She had one more shot to enlist me among these adoring, feverish masses.
St. Vincent on Letterman (8/29/11)
A few weeks before the show I learned that one of my favorite No-Fail bands, Shearwater, had signed up for the opening bill. The No-Fail band, by definition (my definition) seems incapable of producing a bad album and rarely, if ever, a bad track. Shearwater has been creating achingly beautiful indie-rock for more than a decade now. Eight albums in they’re still fresh and relevant and yet lead singer Jonathan Meiberg still mans the swag booth and engages in conversation with anyone that wants to talk shop. I stopped by, bought some records and chatted him up briefly about the Rook album artwork (the crows, it turns out, are taxidermy), why I’d never seen them in Pittsburgh (“We just always seem to jump around this place on the circuit.”), how much I liked the set (“We were a little loosy-goosy up there.”) and begged a couple of autographs for my new vinyl. He didn’t even have a marker handy. I had to wonder if I was the first to beg an autograph all night. The life of a band opening for a cultural zeitgeist, I suppose. This conversation carried on as intermittently and awkwardly as one might expect with St. Vincent thrashing around on her axe maybe fifty feet behind the swag table. Talk. Pause to register. Talk again. Had there been less guitar-grinding in the background I would have inquired further about his love of birding (a theme that carries throughout the band’s album art). He opened up my copy of Palo Santo to show me some fantastic artwork of an extinct Hawaiian bird on the record. All I could do was nod and appreciate him being a thoroughly interesting and personable dude.
Here’s Shearwater playing the epic “Insolence.”
Anyway, as you may have noticed I vacated my listening post at the back of the Altar Bar near the end of St. Vincent’s set to talk to Shearwater’s Jonathan. She’d played some of the songs I’d come to hear (“Cruel” for example). I’d also come to a conclusion about the value of Annie Clark as an artist and made a final decision about my own appreciation for her music. Plus it was roasting in the Altar Bar. I sent a lame Tweet out between sets joking that the Altar Bar was channeling its holy past to punish us sinners for our transgressions. Also I’d been pushed up against the mixing table, yet again, despite my best efforts to push forward and I couldn’t bring myself to buy yet another $4 bottle of water. I needed to air out at the entrance and find some much needed space away from the dude who kept brushing up against me with his flannel shirt. The last thing I want brushing up against me when I’m hot and sweaty is someone else’s flannel. If you’ve never experienced this, it’s abnormally unpleasant. But, again, I digress. Point being, it was time to preserve sanity rather than devotion to studying the purported awesomeness of St. Vincent.
First, let it be said that Annie Clark is one badass, barefoot rock pixie. I don’t know how accurate the comparison really is but I couldn’t shake the notion that she was some kind of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. She opens her songs like a Neko Case chanteuse/songbird, rises to crescendo a la the Cranberries’ Dolores O’Riordan then punctuates the chorus with some Vernon Reid guitar chops and pedalboard guitar-distortion madness. (Dr. Case and Mr. Reid, perhaps.) Studio recordings just can’t relay the vigor of her live performance. Nor, as I said before, do those castrated, teetotaler pleasantries on Letterman. While performing, she’s in the zone, lost in the rise and fall of the music until the very last effects-laden guitar warble when she switches off and returns to being a candid, sweet-natured conversationalist, engaging the crowd with ease. At one point, she said she was “probably getting too VH1 Storytellers” before apologizing directly to the Under-21 quarantine at the Altar Bar for referencing something before their time and that if they had any questions to just Google it when they got home.
Even though I’m still not going to throw a St. Vincent record on the turntable and let it spin indefinitely, I reached a contented middle-ground. Appreciation without adulation. I now get the appeal of her live show. She’s a true performer with a unique musical perspective. She simultaneously recalls the free-spirit of indie-rock’s infancy while expanding the anticipated elements of the genre. Fans might not recognize the tropes, but they’re ingesting a heaping helping of prog-rock in much of St. Vincent’s music. The abrupt tempo changes, starts and stops, brief jazz-like improvisations, unusual melodies, scales and vocal stylization. Prog-folk, perhaps? (Edit: apparently someone already coined the term prog-folk to refer to politically-oriented folk artists like Jethro Tull. The term evolved to include more recent artists like the Decemberists who actually used the aforementioned tempo changes, etc. on The Hazards of Love album. Who knew?) In lieu of Prog-folk, how about prog-pixie or prog-chanteuse? I dunno. We’ll get there.
To wrap this whole thing up in well under, uh, 1500 words… I’ll no longer be entering into discussions about St. Vincent with the leading phrase: “I really just don’t get her.” Now I can offer a much more definitive verdict. I think she’s cool as hell, what she does speaks to a lot of people, but it’s just not my thing. And then that will be followed up with one last assertion:
…I would absolutely go see her show again…
And for comparison’s sake, here’s another live video from the real St. Vincent owning that guitar at the Met:
Odds and ends…
Apparently it’s okay to be twenty-something and wear Keds. So all you ten year olds that never grew up, now’s your chance to relive that dream. Go rock yourself a pair of brand new Keds.
Also, it’s apparently a thing to wear knee-socks with Keds. I saw a dude wearing shorts, red, hiked-up socks and Keds. He was 5”6” (tops) and making out with his 5’5” girlfriend (who sported the requisite haircut for a female St. Vincent attendee) and all I could think was: C’mon, you could do so much better than this guy. I mean, he’s wearing Keds with red socks.
The requisite female haircut for attending a St. Vincent show is apparently some sort of shorty cut that looks like a bike helmet…. Which is fascinating, considering that Annie Clark has a badass mop of curly, shoulder-length black hair that reminds me of Vernon Reid’s old dreads when she’s up there thrashing on her guitar. Yes I’m stuck on this Vernon Reid thing.
Thick, black eyeglass frames are very in right now. I think they were checking at the door. You could enter if you wore Keds or had black eyeglass frames. Thankfully, I wore mine. Phew.
A St. Vincent “roadie” spent forever tuning her white and red guitar. He started with that one, went through the other three or so and then came back to that white and red one. Full concentration. I’ve never seen someone so intent on one guitar. Something tells me, at some point or another, he had to face the wrath of an out-of-tune St. Vincent. Hell hath no fury…
Here are some videos from the show, courtesy of the pghmusicreport on Youtube: