In September of 2007, The National played a lower-level show at the Pabst, and when the crowd filtered out it seemed like all anyone was talking about was opener St. Vincent. At that show, St. Vincent was simply Annie Clark, alone onstage with an arsenal of gadgets. I assume she must’ve had a guitar but I seriously don’t remember; her set seemed to me like a noisy bunch of loops and I scoffed at the hype. Typical.
It wasn't until I saw Clark with David Byrne at the Riverside in 2012 that I was bowled over. I had a really good seat for that show and for the first time was able to see her face while she performed. I wasn't terribly taken with the album those two put out together, but they had a very endearing chemistry onstage with their cute little bits of choreography and whatnot. But previously I had no idea Clark was such a wizard on the guitar; holy crap can that girl wail. And then there was the intensity of her face. I could've sworn she had no trace of insecurity; she exuded an intoxicating confidence, like she'd put something in everyone's drink and was the only one who knew it. It was a sly, playful, commanding energy, but completely loving, too. It said 'I'm a goddess, and you're all geniuses for being here with me.'
I couldn't see her expressions quite so well Friday night, but the feeling was exactly the same. Left to her own devices, in charge of a full band and production, she has put together a truly beastly live music experience for this tour, and as she rides a still-swelling wave of critical and commercial success, it's as if her ambition and talents are still a few leaps ahead of even the lofty expectations heaped upon her. I hate the thought of adding to that burden, but I can't help it; Clark is one of the most important and captivating voices out there creating music today, a pop singer future generations of music obsessives will lament having been born too late to experience in her prime.
There's a simple concept of performance that seems to me improbably elusive, probably the one uniting quality that I quest after when I go to any show: make each moment better than the one before. So while the early goings of Friday night's show were fantastic, mainly because St. Vincent's songs are almost all fantastic, the proceedings were almost predictable, in a relative sense. Clark was saving the real firepower for later on, and basically beginning with "Surgeon" she started pulling out all the stops. Her choreography and theatricality in general weren't excessive; obviously the whole production was well thought-out but with a little suspension of disbelief you could easily buy into the effect that her movements were an extension of what the songs happened to be making her feel like doing at any given moment. It was the music that kept getting more and more intense, with contrasting subtler moments that could take your breath away, like the starkly calm cries for help of "Marrow" and her riveting solo rendition of "Strange Mercy" in the encore.
When Clark and the band tore into "Bring Me Your Loves" it was like a nonstop whirlwind until the end of the set, which ended with the scathing industrial punk of "Krokodil", a little-known 2012 Record Store Day single that I'm obviously kicking myself now for not getting my hands on. Then, following her spine-tingling solo bit in the encore, the band came back out and you could sense this crackling anticipation both from the crowd and from Clark. She started strumming "Lithium" and it didn't even dawn on me then that it was twenty years ago that Kurt died. I had to look it up on Wikipedia the next day, because in 1994 it was April 8th when we all heard the news and I guess I've always had that date stuck in my head. What the hell difference does it make, right? For me and anyone else from my generation still carrying that scar who happened to be in attendance, it was a three-minute therapy session, and it didn't end there; the destructive force with which Clark wielded her axe during the show-closing "Your Lips Are Red" sounded so much like a Cobain-led demolition that it could've been considered a mashup with "Endless, Nameless".The new St. Vincent album still hasn't floored me like Strange Mercy did, but like any good show, this Turner Hall
performance raised the album's profile considerably for me. I feel drawn to listening to it more if only to trigger memories of the show. Going in, I thought 'why would they have this show at Turner instead of the Pabst?' but in the end I was really glad it was in the cavernous hall. For one thing, I've seen her in all three Pabst venues now--I think she's the only artist I can say that about, whoopty-doo! For another thing, in this case I couldn't really fault anybody for standing still wanting to watch every move Annie Clark might make, but I was very grateful that we all had to be on our feet so my little crew could dance without disturbing anyone's view. And also, I think this particular show is made for a dirty rock and roll club; it's too easy to slip into a comfort zone in the confines of our nice theaters, and St. Vincent, at least at this show, was all about ripping your face off. Maybe the next tour will be a more pristinely beautiful thing, but I'll be shocked if anything she does in the future grabs me more viscerally than this unforgettable night.