St. Vincent House of Blues March 10, 2014
There's a fine line between eccentric and creepy. Luckily, St. Vincent has the kind of preternatural grace that makes negotiating such a tricky threshold as easy as hopping over little puddles on the sidewalk. Every so often, though...
Just kidding. The indie singer-songwriter once known as Annie Clark is one of the most ostentatious artists to emerge in the 2010s (though her debut, Marry Me, dates to 2007), certainly from Texas. We hate to do it, but whatever Dallas did to produce such an idiosyncratic creature, it deserves full credit.
In concert she comes across as either an android or a doll, depending on the song, not quite human but amazingly lifelike. But her voice is emotionally naked, full of expression and sometimes real hurt, especially compared to all the computer-generated sounds and outright noise around her. St. Vincent has obvious ancestors -- PJ Harvey, Bjork, Annie Lennox, Sinead O'Connor every so often -- but within the wide taxonomy of contemporary pop, there's no one even remotely like her.
Monday night at House of Blues, in a room that was audibly buzzing the way Houston venues only do when it's SXSW week (never could figure that out), St. Vincent and her three bandmates played a 90-minute set built around bold contrasts, the mechanistic robo-funk of the rhythm section versus the overwhelming omnichords of the synthesizers or the shards of post-punk guitar versus that delicate little dance she kept doing that fell somewhere between a sidestep and a soft-shoe.
The show opened with a computerized voice (think of the one in Radiohead's "Fitter, Happier") advising the audience to "please refrain from digitally capturing your experience." Somewhat ironic considering this is the "Digital Witness" tour, behind St. Vincent's eponymous fourth album, but outside one jackass the crowd complied, and the lack of a sickly LED pall over the room did help enhance the numerous strobe-lit and laser-guided effects.
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The early set was dominated by songs from St. Vincent, a rare album that is as avant-garde as it is danceable. (Somewhere David Byrne, her partner on the Love This Giant 2012 album/tour, has to be smiling.) Songs like "Rattlesnake," "Birth In Reverse" and especially "Digital Witness" poured copious guitar squall, mechanized percussion and seductive melodies into a recognizable enough pop mold that it wasn't that hard to imagine hearing them on the radio. (Somewhere; maybe in Europe.) Her songs have real textures; plenty of artists use computers to make music these days, but St. Vincent really makes those computers sing.
There's no way it would come off as well if it wasn't her up there doing it. Her movements are both delicate and highly calculated; none moreso than when she regally stood atop the riser during "Cheerleader" and then descended it, upside down, during the subsequent "Prince Johnny." For crowd interaction, she peppered the songs with conspiratiorial but off-kilter banter on the order of, "You get drunk after exactly two Miller Lites...your favorite word is 'orgiastic.'"
So yes, St. Vincent is artful to a fault, which is not a fault at all unless the song comes out a little on the underdeveloped side. Just to name one, because there was only a handful, the tribal-drum and synths of "Pieta" felt a little bit too skeletal. But plenty of others, like "Every Tear Disappears" and "Prince Johnny," felt rich and luxuriant.
As the show progressed, St. Vincent and her companions began indulging in baser pleasures. Songs like "Year of the Tiger" (with its Oriental overtones), "Marrow" and "Huey Newton" and got louder, wilder and heavier, pitching the set toward the inevitable climax that came with the full-on, slash-and-burn, industrial/punk-rock catharsis of "Krokodil." Considering what had come before, it was like she was bent on smashing the whole thing to bits just to give herself the opportunity to start fresh with another batch of peculiar cybernetic creations.
It was also obvious that even for all her artifice, St. Vincent enjoys rocking out as much as the next girl. And why wouldn't she?
Personal Bias: Also Year of the Tiger.
The Crowd: Youngsters, with a fair amount of beards and eyeglasses. Hypnotized most of the show.
Overheard In the Crowd: The "whoo-hoo" howls for an encore, fully halfway across Greenstreet Pavilions.
Random Notebook Dump: Was a little shocked it took until the next-to-last song, "Northern Lights," for someone to bust out a theremin.
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