Show Review: St. Vincent 8/5/09

words by Jon Aubin | photo by Annabel Mehran
| Thursday, September 3rd, 2009

annThere’s a standard line that goes with most stories about St. Vincent that goes something like this: young up-and-coming singer/songwriter/guitarist with an impressive resume (backing both Sufjan Stevens and The Polyphonic Spree) composes lush symphonic arrangements on a laptop to frame her heart-rending vocals. St. Vincent never sounds the same from song to song, but damned if all of it isn’t easy on the ears. You get the idea that this chick knows what she’s after and ain’t afraid to take it. She’s got chops, experience, and beauty — as proof, take a look at every record cover she’s graced. She’s got the indie boys sweating in their vintage flannel.

For me, Annie Clark is an enigma. Dressed in overall shorts and a simple white tee, by day she seems more like a latch key kid than an international celebrity. St. Vincent is larger than life on stage, but in person, Annie Clark is as down-to-earth as any of your closest friends. Following the hotly anticipated May release of Actor, Clark’s second album, the listening public was reintroduced to St. Vincent. It’s no secret Actor has been universally embraced by critics and audiences alike.

When she first came upon the scene with 2007’s Marry Me, named for Maeby’s catchphrase in the short-lived cult sitcom “Arrested Development,” St. Vincent shook up the sheltered world of indie rock like a snow globe. No one seems to have predicted the enormous success Actor has become, but when you listen to Marry Me, what you’re hearing is the sound of an artist coming into her own.

In retrospect, it becomes apparent that the success of Actor should have surprised no one. St. Vincent has both an indie cachet and pop potential. If you think you’re unique because you listen to St. Vincent and you’re only one of a handful of fans — think again. St. Vincent is for everybody. She might be coming to your town, but chances are you’re going to have to call on her in one of the major metropolises. There’s still a few scattered opportunities to see St. Vincent in the U.S. between now and her European fall tour with Grizzly Bear — I wouldn’t sit on my hands if I were you.

The truth is Annie Clark isn’t perfect. In fact, at the last two shows I’ve seen her (Dennis on August 5th and Somerville on May 19th,  respectively), she’s had false starts. In effect, she’s screwed up a song and had to start over. The first time she actually endeared herself to her audience by saying, “I saw Chaka Kahn do that once,” but the second time no excuses were necessary. No one can wrap an audience around her finger like St. Vincent — she casts a spell over us, and we might as well be moths in a black widow’s web or a fire we’ve mistaken for the moon. Typical crowd noise at a St. Vincent show is reverential silence — contrast that with recent concerts you’ve been to!

In the early evening of August 5th, a sunny, humid, and hot summer day on the Cape, I stumbled upon the venue (Cape Cinema) around 5:30 PM to soak in the atmosphere. This being a brief 18-hour vacation, I was forced to fit in the maximum amount of activity in an extremely limited amount of time. Working backward from our dateline in quick succession, I showered, ate the “Hyannis” sandwich, a Snickers ice cream bar, and drank two bottles of Poland Spring (big ups, Dennis Public Market). I took a harrowing bike ride from the beach, swam in the bay, and drove three hours from New Haven, Connecticut — pretty good time, if you ask me. This means that by 5:30, I was pretty well oiled for a non-drinking man.

As I drove around the cul-de-sac in front of the venue to take a picture of the building, I saw Annie tossing around a pigskin with her bandmate, Daniel Hart, in the field beside the theater. Not much of a footballer, that Annie Clark, but she makes up for it with her other charms.

After quickly parking my car, collecting myself, and grabbing my journal, I approached and asked if she’d agree to a quick interview. She said yes, and here’s what followed:

What is your favorite thing about yourself?
Annie Clark: [laughs] Oh no. [laughs] What? Can Daniel answer this for me? Um…um…my favorite thing about myself? I’ll say what it is. I have a natural, big, gap between my two front teeth, and I have adult orthodontics to keep my two front teeth together.

Is that right? Is that your favorite thing about yourself?
AC: Yes, my adult orthodontics.

Classically trained or self-taught?
AC: Classically taught. No, pretty much self-taught. I got some guitar lessons when I was 12 to 14. And I got a little bit at music college [Berklee School of Music], but . . .
Daniel Hart: I thought I taught you everything you knew?
AC: Daniel taught me everything I know. Classically taught.

So, Daniel, the clarinetist, guitarist, and — what else do you play?
DH: Trombone.
AC: Violin.

— trombonist, violinist, and fellow Polyphonic Spree member taught Annie Clark everything she knows. Okay. What is the most overrated thing in the world? It can be an ideology, system of belief, idea — this can be anything, really.
AC: [thoughtful pause] I can literally hear crickets. That’s the sound in my brain.

So crickets could be a contender for most underrated?
AC: Capitalism!

AC: Gap-toothed women.

I’m going to skip another stock question to stay on the metaphysical bent.
AC: I like the metaphysical bent. I appreciate it more.

What is your biggest distraction to getting work done?
AC: [a rain-on-tin type of sound can be heard nearby] Is someone urinating over there? Or is that–

It’s very loud.
AC and DH: [Laughing hysterically]
AC: This is slowly ranking as the most bizarre interview ever.

Who do you idolize as a performer?
AC: Sharon Jones from Sharon Jones and the Dap Kings. James Brown.

Name something you’d like to get better at.
AC: Everything.

AC: Everything.

During her performance that evening at Cape Cinema in Dennis, Cape Cod, Clark leaned heavily on her Actor material. The Actor songs that seemed a bit under ripe and tentative during her May 19th show at the Somerville Theater had come into full flower, the fruits of relentless touring. Clark deftly varied stylistic changes throughout her uncluttered live performance, becoming a conduit for intense emotion; shifting shapes that expressed everything from ebullience to anguish.

It was a treat to see the band play many of the arrangements with live instrumentation: violin, clarinets, tenor sax, flute — the whole shebang. Clark’s cinematic influences were on display all evening long — for example, the tastefully chosen venue, which featured a 6,400 square-foot Rockwell Kent art deco mural depicting the night sky in bold primary colors. The lighting effects ranged from the simple — a rich and ruddy crimson that appeared to bleed from the band, casting Clark in its ominous shadows — to a combination of well-placed Technicolor footlights and strobes. A riveting performance, St. Vincent made the six hours of driving and brushes with death on route 6A all worthwhile.