At around the halfway point of this remarkable concert, St Vincent’s Annie Clark scans the four tiers that make up the Shepherd’s Bush Empire – each one packed with devoted fanboys and fangirls hanging on her every word – and reminisces about her early London gigs “in pubs, providing entertainment for pints”.
It’s laughable to think that music as sophisticated as St Vincent’s could ever serve as the soundtrack for the quaffing of Carling in The Rat & Parrot. Nevertheless, the fact that it’s taken St Vincent five years to break through to London’s medium-sized live venues is understandable. St Vincent’s music is a tough sell. Her songs may be melodic and concise, but they also carry a hostile underbelly, typically in the form of a nauseous guitar solo, a disquieting lyric, or – often – both.
This show brought the belligerent aspects of St Vincent’s music to the fore, and the results were visceral and thrilling. With two laptop operators and a drummer for support, Clark’s guitar dominates the set. St Vincent does not do strumming: instead, she hacks and picks away at her instrument, jerking her body behind it and ensuring that every single note – including Cruel’s funky earworm, Dilettante’s mutant R&B skronk, and Chloe In The Afternoon’s strange spasms – hits home hard.
In the year 2012 we really ought to no longer be surprised by the sight of a woman playing a guitar on stage. Yet it can’t be denied that the contrast between Annie Clark’s elegant looks and her aggressive musicianship brings an exciting frisson to the show. Indeed, at times Clark seems to delight in the opportunity to scuff up her recorded music’s smoother edges. Near the end of Actor Out Of Work she adds an expletive to the album version’s demure lyric, screaming “I think I like you, I think I’m… fucking mad!” before unleashing a malevolent solo.
After a set dominated by latest album Strange Mercy (and featuring a brilliantly unhinged cover of The Pop Group’s She Is Beyond Good And Evil) Clark returns for an encore comprising a minimalist version of The Party and a Black Sabbath-style re-boot of Your Lips Are Red from her debut album Marry Me. During the latter, Clark stagedives, performing sludgy, nihilistic riffs while suspended in the air.
Eventually Clark is returned to the stage where she stands for what seems like an eternity, her heavy breathing amplified by her microphone. Finally, she coos the song’s closing lines – “Your skin’s so fair it’s not fair…” – and walks beatifically off the stage. Astonishing.