Well, slap our boots and call us Aunt Sally: The Spin was at a loss for words when we picked up our brains from somewhere behind the merch table a little after 11 p.m. on Friday night. We expected good things from St. Vincent, having thoroughly enjoyed the Love This Giant set twice (1, 2), but because of that familiarity, Annie Clark & Co. weren’t really pinging our must-see radar. That changed real quick.
We emerged from the will call line a few songs into the opening set, in which New York-based filmmaker and visual artist Sarah Lipstate, performing as Noveller, created Frippertronic symphonies for solo electric guitar. With a slew of pedals and a bow, Lipstate coaxed a wide array of sounds out from her instrument, turning the slightest gesture into a building block in her massive cathedral of sound, taking us to the peaks of the Himalayas and the depths of the Mariana Trench. While we appreciated the purposeful design and were thoroughly impressed with her technique, the soundscape evolved at a glacial pace, which started to wear on us. Maybe we’d think differently if we’d seen Noveller as part of RadioLab (she performed as part of the Apocalyptical tour last fall), or before we chugged that cup of coffee.
We didn’t have to wait long, however, for the energy to ramp way, way up. The lights blacked out and a robot voice came over the PA (for the uber-nerds in the audience, very similar to the speech synthesizer that recites “Fitter, Happier” on Radiohead’s OK Computer) — the soul of the song “Digital Witness,” asking us to resist the temptation to document the show and just listen. Sometimes, that suggestion — or requirement, as the case may be — feels pretentious, or at least like overkill, but it was essential advice for this set, a marriage of music, lighting and choreography that left us gobsmacked and with a notebook full of hieroglyphic scribbles.
Even if it was played simple and straight-ahead, we’d enjoy the set, about half songs from St. Vincent and the remainder covering the rest of her catalog. Sometimes a big production is distracting, and sometimes pageantry is the heart of what makes a show great, but this was an entirely different animal, and one that really blurred the line between music and other art forms we like to talk about so much. Every song had a color scheme and choreographed movement that felt more like a natural extension of the words and music than a just an accompanying dance.
Speaking of the songs, St. Vincent’s are arranged with a lot of room in them for the parts to breathe. As a result, they sound huge, even with the small backing trio who accompanied her, made up of multi-instrumentalist Toko Yasuda (who has a collaboration with Sun Ra Arkestra’s Danny Ray Thompson among her many credits), keyboardist Daniel Mintseris and drummer Matthew Johnston. There were probably a few backing tracks, but they were so completely integrated into the performance that we couldn’t pick ‘em out with a fine-toothed comb.
“Bring Me Your Loves,” a deep cut from the latest record, didn’t really stand out on the album, but its punked-up second-line rhythm and twisted, de-tuned vocals dropped our jaw at this show. When “Huey Newton,” another track from St. Vincent, suddenly turned heavy around the three-quarter mark, it was like a more menacing version of Tool crept onstage and plugged in without our noticing. And then there was Clark’s stunning guitar playing. Its technical ferocity puts prog masters to shame, but her light touch and sparing use of it intensifies it. Float like a butterfly, sting like a killer bee.
The encore began with a beautiful solo take on “Strange Mercy” that slowly but surely silenced the crowd chatter (most of which amounted to “Whoa!” and “Shh!”), and ended with “Your Lips Are Red” exploding all over us. We were totally immersed in Clark’s world of death, rebirth and strange fascinations, and the end of the show took us completely by surprise — just the way we like it.