It’s been one hell of a year for Annie Clark, aka St Vincent. In-between endlessly touring Europe, Australia and North America, she’s co-hosted Saturday Night Live, fronted Nirvana as they were inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, and released her critically-acclaimed clusterfuck of an album.
In spite of all this, she shows no sign of exhaustion here in Manchester. She and her band blast through most of her self-titled new album and plenty of favourites from the three previous (not to mention new track ‘Pieta’). On top of this, she clearly isn’t satisfied with this being an identikit rock gig; the set is littered with poetic stage repartee, choreographed vogue dance moves and, following a rousing performance of Prince Johnny, she feigns her own death by rolling down a three-tiered staircase in slow-motion, ending upside down, her eyes fixed on the crowd over a backdrop of inharmonious synths. The whole set strikes a fine balance between chaos and control – the band’s impeccable sense of rhythm and dynamics allows Annie to run riot. Her guitar tones are incredibly outlandish but she always has hold of the reigns. Case and point; Digital Witness is a cacophony of sampled horns and provocative guitar solos, with a vocal teeming with more punch and gusto than the already excellent recorded counterpart. Actor out of Work remains an onslaught of power chords and tongue-in-cheek acrimony, Annie throwing in four-letter expletives at just the right moments. The beauty of a St Vincent setlist is that you’ll rarely be disappointed, owing to her strong back catalogue – ‘filler’ does not come into Annie’s vocabulary.
Don’t be fooled into thinking this is just the Annie show. Her band aren’t some cobbled together session musicians. Drummer Matt Johnson (he was in Jeff Buckley’s band for Grace don’t you know?) embraces Annie’s wilder side with unorthodox beats scattered with sampled electronic pads. Toko Yasuda sticks mainly to synthesisers, but is in her element on guitar; her and Annie’s duelling riffs during Birth in Reverse, complete with automaton-like moves in unison around the stage, is something to behold.
As the last chord of a rousing Bring Me Your Loves rings out, it doesn’t take long for the crowd’s cheers to beckon the band back out on stage. Annie stands atop her staircase for an intimate version of the title track from Strange Mercy, appearing vulnerable but completely at ease. The night ends as most of St Vincent sets do, with debut LP highlight Your Lips are Red. Gone is the indie-pop flavouring of the recorded version, and out comes all your favourite horror films rolled into one. Annie’s playful introduction of band members acts as a bit of a red herring, as it isn’t long before doom-laden synths underline her deranged vocal – “Your lips are red / My face is red from reading your red lips” she croaks, face bathed in ghost-story lighting. Everything slowly builds to a frantic wordless chorus of liquid time signatures and psychotic riffs, before Annie enters the crowd encouraging the destruction of her guitar, her band fashioning the most beautiful upsurge of ear-splitting noise.
The venue becomes Annie’s adventure playground – she dangerously shimmies across the top balcony’s barrier before being given a leg-up, her appreciation coming in the form of swigging her helper’s drink. Finally, she returns to the stage to a freshly tuned guitar to end on a much more ethereal note; leaving her delay-ridden guitar looping eternally as she leaves the stage to much adulation. This was Annie at her most theatrical; each nuance deliberate and meticulously premeditated but, unlike most who try to mix art and performance, it is pulled off with such natural aplomb that only St Vincent could manage.
(Note: Pictures are from recent live show in Leeds).