A chest pounding, guitar scratching, lip curling, sneering behemoth of a performance
Nobody opens for Annie Clark, but Annie Clark. In place of an opening act, the crowd at the O2 Academy Brixton on October 17th was treated to a screening of horror short, The Birthday Party, Clark’s directing debut that she also co-wrote as part of the horror anthology XX. The film stands as an almost perfect introduction to Annie Clark’s musical alter-ego St. Vincent. It’s slick, colourful, and funny whilst also being unsettling and sinister. As the credits rolled the curtains closed over the screen and the audience waited with bated breath for St. Vincent’s arrival on the stage.
It would be a while until the curtains would open properly. At first they opened just a slit, just enough to allow St. Vincent to walk through. She stood at the edge of the stage, hot pink PVC-thigh-high-booted feet crossed at the ankle, unmoving in a matching bodysuit. Her shadow looming behind her, only her lips moved as she opened the show with a guitar-less ‘Marry Me’, the microphone clutched at her mouth. At the end, she was handed a white guitar, the first of many from her Ernie Ball collection that she played exclusively through the night, and stepped behind a mic stand for the second song of the night. The curtain opened slowly over the course of the next five songs, revealing a half diamond stage marked out by yet more curtain and microphone stands placed haphazardly around the stage. The first portion of the show acted as a run-through of St. Vincent’s hits – songs such as ‘Cruel,’ ‘Cheerleader,’ ‘Birth in Reverse,’ and ‘Digital Witness’ each got their own miniature show. For each song Clark adopted a specific pose and placement on the stage – for one song she stood near the back of the stage singing into a microphone that didn’t quite face into the audience, for another she laid on the floor in the foetal position, facing the audience and singing straight to them.
The second half of the show came after a costume change and a stage redecoration: all the curtains were pulled away and a circular podium rose in the centre. St. Vincent returned to the stage in a metallic dress and mounted the podium, where she stayed for the rest of the show. This second half was her most recent album, MASSEDUCTION, played in its entirety. Behind her on the screen played footage from promotional videos and music videos, each song getting its own selection of clips centred around one colour per song. The striking exception being ‘Happy Birthday, Johnny,’ a down-tempo, hugely moving song, accompanied by slowly cycling colours on the screen, until the heart-breaking line “of course I blame me,” which etched itself in metres-tall letters on the screen. It was the standout song from the show, certainly, which can still bring me out in chills when I listen to it now and remember those words, scratched into the screen behind Clark who, at that moment, seemed so small. It was a rare moment of smallness for St. Vincent, who otherwise stuck to bombast and pure sex onstage, bringing to mind David Bowie and Prince with her guitar theatrics and the way she owned the stage despite being the only person there. Instrumental tracks that weren’t played by St. Vincent herself were provided by backing track. No one opens for Annie Clark, and no one else was on stage with Annie Clark. St. Vincent’s control of the stage was exerted even upon the roadies and stage-hands – balaclavaed, jumpsuit-clad men crossed the stage when needed, moving microphone stands and exchanging guitars with Annie, standing stock still at the sides when not of use, doing as little as possible when necessary.
And then, with the end of final MASSEDUCTION track, ‘Smoking Section,’ she waved, she stepped down from the podium, and she left. The crowd stood still, the ending of the concert a bit uncertain, much like the end of the album, unsure of whether to expect anything more. It was a chest pounding, guitar scratching, lip curling, sneering behemoth of a performance and she said no more than two sentences to the crowd throughout the whole thing. The lights came up and the audience filtered out. Many turned to check the stage as they left, checking to see if she’d show up at the end, characteristically unpredictable. She didn’t. At least, not before I left.