On a rainy Wednesday evening, Annie Clark brought wonder and beauty to Seattle and to the Moore Theater with her St. Vincent return to our fair city. Both of the last times we’ve had the chance to see clark, it was alongside David Byrne, playing some original material, but mostly cuts from their collaborative record Love This Giant. Now, with a phenomenal new self-titled record of her own, Clark returned with a bang that could brighten anyone’s day. Though this was a fully seated show, not a single person in the house remained in their chair for the duration. St. Vincent brought the house down with a stellar, twenty song set of material new and old. Together with a great opener set from ambient songwriter Noveller, St. Vincent has laid a fantastic memory in our minds to tide us over for months to come.
Sarah Lipstate’s Noveller project is a beautifully display of both chaos and control. Armed with a guitar, a looping pedal, and a trigger pad with a few very minimal backing tracks, Lipstate created a dizzying array of sound a color, 90% or so on the spot. Looping guitar and/or vocal patterns often lends itself to repetitive tracks that depend on the crowd’s emotional investment rather than a sense of musical mastery and artful presentation. But the latter is the only way you could describe Lipstate’s music. Tracks of hers like “No Dreams” combine drastically independent guitar lines together to form a picture you couldn’t see coming in the first minute or two. With six LPs now under her belt, Lipstate has learned how to maximize the skeleton presentation she purposefully chooses, and tonight, she showed it off in wonderful fashion. Her 40 minute set flew by in sparkling fashion, and with a wave, she left the crowd to a good eighth of the crowd leaving their seats to go reassess purchasing her merchandise.
As the lights dropped for St. Vincent‘s newest Seattle reveal, a computerized “Fitter, Happier”-type voice boomed over the loudspeaker, requesting that the audience refrain from digitally capturing the performance in any way. The plea couldn’t have been any more appropriate - after all, this is Clark’s aptly named Digital Witness tour, and here, the audience were meant to be witnesses, not scribes. After her fantastic self-titled record reintroduced us to her as the patron saint of digital reinvention, now she comes to us with digital undertones lurking under every set piece and in the joints of every movement. As an art piece and as a concert performance, St. Vincent’s show tonight rose to the monumental occasion set by her already extraordinary album and surpassed it.
Clad in a tight black dress splattered with red and adorned with a crown of maniacal silver hair, Clark entered and warmed the crowd up immediately with back to back burners off the new record, “Rattlesnake” and “Digital Witness”. The former had an extended outro showing off Clark’s brutal guitar technique right off the bat. Of course, later, we’d get to see plenty more and in more furiously face-melting fashion, but “Rattlesnake” was an obvious opener choice just to silence any naysayers from the get go. “Digital Witness” held all of the danceability it hosts on the record, with Annie and her secondary guitarist and keyboardist Toko Yasuda both marching along to the beat, mimicking the track’s video. “Cruel” from Strange Mercy followed, keeping the dance tunes rolling and keeping us rolling off of Clark’s endless guitar licks. Clark wanders the stage while she plays in a modified ballet pointe step that is completely her own. While she rips out solo after solo like a woman possessed by angry, long-dead guitar god, her knees never break, and her small steps are so quick it looks like she’s floating, with her shadow cast immensely on the back wall. Behind Annie was a set of massive stair steps, like building blocks one on top of the next, with a larger, painted rendition draping the back wall like a shadow. The choice of lighting on stage was very intentionally meant to be dazzled at, but not captured with cheap camera shots. Shadows were heavy and daunting, and always appearing larger than life.
To complete a seamless introductory quartet, Clark sped the tempo up just slightly on “Birth In Reverse” to bring it to full steam punk frivolity. Yasuda and Clark dueled guitars at the end of the track side by side, one dressed in all black and the other all white. With massive white lights switching on and off at a perfect 90 degrees on Clark’s left and right, her pointe steps in small circles in the center of the stage almost looked like a quickly shifting hologram, bouncing around the space and moving just soon enough for you to forget it’s not real. This wouldn’t be the only time Clark used a visual interpretation of digital compression as a set piece. Later, as a transition out of a fresh “Mysterious Ways”-influenced guitar solo ending “Prince Johnny” before jumping into Strange Mercy’s “Year of the Tiger”, Clark laid atop her building-block steps and slowly crawled as if in reverse down the front of the steps, mostly on her back and shoulders, with strobed lights making her movement appear a series of images.
Compression was the first of a few digital age topics tackled with subtlety in Clark’s design. Every handful of songs, she would take a break and make a forced attempt to relate to the crowd, starting with general, easily relatable experiences (“I can tell your parents don’t know everything about you”) and slowly drifting towards the highly individual (“When I was single, I went to the house where they filmed Singles and shed a single tear”). Among other things, these humorous bits mimicked society’s tendency towards over-sharing on the Internet in an attempt to both form relationship and individualize at the same. While it was a simple device and a great opportunity to break from the intensity of the music, this intentional choice of crowd banter could not have served a greater purpose in the general scheme of the Digital Witness tour.
The choice of material was also very intentional for the tour at hand. Clark left her guitar briefly to pose on her steps for “I Prefer Your Love” and the beautiful “Pietá”. Later, she ascended them with guitar in hand for a bombastic headbanger rendition of “Cheerleader” and the fantastic “Prince Johnny”. Along with 9 of the 11 St. Vincent tracks, Clark special picked six cuts from Strange Mercy and a handful from her first two records. For the Actor cuts, “Laughing With A Mouth Full of Blood” was a total treat, and the guitar break in “Marrow” has never sounded more intense than here. Another special treat was the 2012 non-album single “Krokodil”, for which Clark ran around the stage like a crazy person, falling down this way and that with reckless abandon.
The encore gave the perfect cap to tonight’s spectacle. After several minutes of earsplitting applause, Clark returned to the top of the steps for a solo rendition of “Strange Mercy”. As her soft but powerful guitar lines buzzed from the stage, the Moore quieted to a complete silenced, amazed by the delicacy and grace unseen equally in the first 80 minutes of Clark’s exhibition. Even though we’ve been hearing it for over two and a half years now, this cut still holds up so well. Its heart-breaking account of the bittersweet beauty of life is a timeless message, fit for a full arrangement, but heard so much closer to the heart in this context. After the last note faded, Clark descended the steps for the last time with her band joining her for a brutal, unrivaled take on Marry Me cut “Your Lips Are Red”. This brand new take was unlike any previous. Drummer Matthew Johnson’s break towards the end held all the ferocity and complexity of the best of Rush, and his work going back and forth with Annie on some quick time changes and transitions was brilliant. But perhaps most brilliant of all was the way that Clark tied her brand new material back to the very beginnings of introduction to the musical world. As the chaos of the song subsides into a single guitar line, Clark whispers into the microphone her last words, “Your skin’s so fair, it’s not fair.” From the self-loathing of “Huey Newton” to the overstimulation of “Bring Me All Your Loves”, even Clark’s oldest work echoes the digital age’s biggest hubris: comparative living and validation by idealism. Clark’s understanding of the world has only grown with time, and how she continues to share this learning with us is a gift and a visceral experience for all.