Posted by: Necci – Jun 07, 2012
There's a fascinating quote about performing live from My Bloody Valentine frontman Kevin Shields. He concludes that, to the best of his abilities, he could never truly dictate what happens on a stage. Performance becomes more of an element that exists within one’s subconscious, and your instrumental behavior becomes a motor function. The way you walk and talk exemplifies the way you immerse yourself into a piece of music. Based on this quote, it seems that St. Vincent's performance at the National fit well into this concept--a partially subconscious execution of art in its purest form.
I had been a longtime fan of Okkervil River prior to my discovery of Shearwater. My first experiences hearing Rook helped to build a bit of excitement for what I considered to be a well-rounded show. Shearwater began with an older track off of Rook entitled “The Snow Leopard,” followed by three tunes off of their recent Sub-Pop release Animal Joy. The start of their set felt uneven despite the group’s precise performance. There was a detachment between Shearwater and the audience that felt jarring, and it didn’t help that the group seemed to be playing it safe. It wasn’t until they trailed into the second half of their set with “Immaculate” that this all changed. There was a newfound looseness and comfort that Shearwater was channeling. The songs became a little more distorted, as well as noisier. There were electronic elements at play along with humming overdrive that lent itself well to the band’s performance. By that point, any ideas of Shearwater playing it safe had completely dissolved. They were reacting to the music they were performing on stage and they were all the better for it. Shearwater mastermind Jonathan Meiburg seemed to loosen up as well, and began to casually interact with the audience. They focused their set primarily on Animal Joy, but closed out with a number from their 2007 release, Palo Santo, entitled “White Waves.” It was fitting as a nod to older fans in the audience. It also acted as a fair testament to the fact that, despite Shearwater playing the role of a side project when Meiburg was involved with Okkervil River; the group is presently a priority and core focus for all involved.
To make yet another observation about a prior article I read, there was a fascinating piece I encountered recently about the way female musicians are portrayed in music writing. It pinpointed particular belittling and gender specific phrases and ideas that were associated immediately with these figures. [Hey, my friend Maura wrote that article! You can read it HERE. -ed.] Leaving The National after being floored by St. Vincent’s set, I thought about this a lot. There is no denying that Annie Clark is gorgeous and that she has a particular air to the way she can engage an audience. But the effect of her music is largely separate from this, and after reading the article, I felt the need to examine her role as a musician even more closely. I was privy to the work she had been involved with for several years; everything from her current project to her involvement with Sufjan Stevens’ backing band in 2006, and The Polyphonic Spree prior to that. I delved into her appearance on Comedy Bang Bang’s 3rd Anniversary Podcast and read interviews describing her approach to guitar playing as well as how that influenced the songwriting on her recent record, Strange Mercy. I came away with a very clear understanding as to why St. Vincent's music affected me the way it did. The group (and particularly Clark) has an important presence within the foundation of contemporary art.
Back at the show, the lights dimmed. The four members of St. Vincent took the stage and immediately delved into “Marrow.” The song expresses a variety of ideas that make up the boundaries of the St. Vincent moniker. There are direct electronic components that flow between keyboards, mini-moog and samples. Clark’s unique guitar style is showcased perfectly between each vocal coo and outburst. It was even more intriguing to examine how the song has evolved, in that it fits better with the ideas that the group expressed on Strange Mercy as opposed to it’s original incarnation on Actor. This became even more apparent with the following numbers, which included “Cheerleader” and “Chloe in the Afternoon,” both from Strange Mercy.
Strange Mercy is a fascinating record in and of itself. Clark has said that she set out to make a more personal record after the cinematic musings found on Actor. In her rapport with the audience, this became very clear. She took several opportunities to create a dialogue around what particular songs meant and where they arose. Before performing “Dilettante,” Clark spoke of what it feels like to escape a small town lifestyle for the bigger city, and what that relationship can mean for those who take the chance. This topic segued into the fact that it had been far too long since she had visited Richmond. She recalled an experience at 929 West Grace Street where she performed to an empty room, and was happy to admit that no one at The National this evening had probably been there. She also spent a moment to reflect on playing in a squatter spot in Richmond as well, and how the contrasting factors of each experience lends itself to a remarkable beauty in her memory. Prior to playing a formidable cover of “She is Beyond Good and Evil” by The Pop Group, Clark further recalled being joined by that group's vocalist, Mark Stewart, for a performance of the song months prior. He had brought a gift for the group that was a dish scrubber in the shape of Sid Vicious, named Sid Dishes. In Stewart’s eyes, this is what had become of punk. With this sentiment, St. Vincent astonished the crowd with a phenomenal cover of that post-punk outfit’s first single.
“Year of The Tiger” may have been the most impressive tune of the evening. Prior to the performance, Clark spoke of her experiences writing Strange Mercy, and reflecting on a melody that her mother used to sing to her as a child. Incorporating this melody with the permission of her mother allowed her to fully emerge into what was easily one of the standout tracks on Strange Mercy. It accomplishes everything she set out to do by relying on personal reflection, as opposed to misdirected abstraction, in her lyrics. It’s a wonderful testament to the artist’s craft. It even exists as a credo for St. Vincent: a unique look into the life of a woman about to enter her thirties who has been surrounded by art throughout her twenties, and how that environment can manifest into remarkable creative expression.
If there is one thing that can’t be denied, it’s the magnificence of Clark’s guitar style. With the accompaniment of mini-moog and keys, she was able to execute her jazz ideologies on guitar at freewill. Instead of mashing out chords, she makes each note count and really places a level of importance on the way every piece of the song resonates. It goes back to what Kevin Shields was saying in that interview I mentioned above. There is a moment where you find that the way you express yourself on a guitar becomes a natural ability as opposed to one that is forced. Clark obviously finds more joy and intrigue in embracing and relishing the feel of music as a free flowing force. This is apparent in the way she strides across the stage in flourishes of bright ambiance and reflexive disruption. When she utilized yet another tool in the form of a theremin during “Northern Lights,” the audience was left stunned by the effective inclusion of this instrument. There are absolutely no limitations to the means in which Clark chooses to express herself in a live environment. It’s a complete joy to witness.
St. Vincent chose to close their set with a number entitled “Krokodil,” which was released this year on a Record Store Day-exclusive single. Clark solely took on vocal duties for this song, standing at the edge of the barrier and towering above the audience. Leaping multiple times into the crowd while screaming along to the chorus, her performance was frenzied, and offered another of her many onstage personas. The energetic guitarist with an exquisite voice that sprawled across the stage with outbursts of instrumental fury was at her most vulnerable during this number. With every leap into the crowd and every screamed vocal, Clark was a menace to reckon with (recalling the notable performance in which she covered tracks from Big Black’s renowned record Songs About Fucking).
After Clark dropped the microphone and ran off the stage with the rest of the band, the crowd was pretty adamant about getting St. Vincent to come back out. Despite already assuming an encore was on its way, it was good to see that level of enthusiasm from The Richmond crowd and know that I wasn’t alone in my astonishment. With this being the last night of their tour, Clark thanked everyone who had made it possible and went into the title track from Strange Mercy. A gentle song in comparison to many of the more fervent numbers found throughout the release, it was a fitting start to the conclusion of the evening. It played as an interesting counterpart to the final song of the night--“Your Lips Are Red,” from Marry Me. The only song in the set from her first full-length was a fitting farewell. Its inclusion helped to highlight the fact that, despite the various changes that have happened throughout Annie Clark's career, there are many things that have remained the same. Her penchant for developing material that emotes musically and offers a confessional style of storytelling lyrically hasn’t drifted too far.
If anything, one of the strongest musical statements of the evening was found in “Actor (Out of Work).” While declaring her madness for the allure of celebrity and how it can manifest itself in industrial and philosophical terms, Clark made a strong statement as an artist about the way her performance was executed. She was a natural on stage--not as an artist that craved the celebrity, but as an artist that has earned any and all notoriety by being incredible at what she does. Clark is an incredible musical icon who has not only established herself in the music world, but proven that what she does is worth paying attention to in the years to come.
By Shannon Cleary