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March 26, 2012 | by  | in Arts Music |
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I Just Really Like Annie Clark: St Vincent Plays San Fran

“This next song is a dance song. Well, it’s a dance song for people who can’t dance. Like me! But you all look like you can dance.”

It’s long been observed by the critical establishment that Annie Clark, aka St. Vincent, is a performer of contradictions. Across her three-album career, her music has been more and more about exploring the clash between presentation and reality, between light and dark, soft and hard, passive and aggressive. Clark tells tales of self-doubt, self-deception, self-destruction, betrayal, cruelty, and all manner of human frailty, their vessel a dynamic, porcelain voice that’s often as delicate as it is beautiful. Add to that a complex, layered musical style, where harsh guitar riffs feel right at home opposite choric vocal and string compositions, and you’ve got a style so distinct – so listenable and yet so confrontational – that it’d take some kind of magic for it to transfer fully to the live setting. Say, for example, the San Francisco Bathhouse on Monday the 19th of March.

As if that was ever a challenge for Clark.

Clark’s return to Wellington, following a last-minute, mis-marketed jaunt at 2010’s New Zealand International Arts Festival, was pretty much a triumph. Auckland-based opening act Dear Time’s Waste – Claire Duncan’s moody lo-fi rock project – set an atmosphere that played down the excitement to come, her set throbbing with a murky, restless energy that burrowed under one’s skin and laid its roots deep; Duncan’s druggy, meandering stage presence further intensified the hypnosis of it, as if the entire venue had suddenly fallen into a trance that slowed life down to a steady, accepting heartbeat.

That heartbeat sped up again with Clark’s arrival, backed by a supremely-talented three-piece band (a band that was apparently getting mixed a bit too loud during to the show, if Clark’s semi-regular gestures to the techies to turn things down were anything to go by). Opening with one of Strange Mercy’s many odes to helplessness and self-interrogation, ‘Surgeon’, the worries about the mixing weren’t totally unjustified, the percussion threatening to consume Clark’s quavering voice time and again. That said, her greatest strength – a strength that would be front and centre throughout the show, and for damn good reason – was given full opportunity to let rip during the song’s crunching choruses and snarling closing riff. Clark’s widely feted for her tremendous prowess with guitars, and her aggressive, jerky playing style transformed St. Vincent, the recording artist, into something entirely different. She was powerful, even brutal, and the sheer clash with her sweet voice and unassuming figure engaged directly in the dichotomies at the heart of her work; the insecurities and anxieties gained a new quality with such a ferocious, fragile delivery.

The set, cribbed mainly from Strange Mercy, but borrowing choice cuts from 2007’s Marry Me and 2009’s Actor, seemed to be chosen to confront the audience with something gruffer and more forceful than they were familiar with. The titular track from her 2011 album, and one of two slower tracks on the setlist, grew two sizes with Clark’s guitar growling over her fist-shaking ultimatum, “If I ever meet the dirty policeman who roughed you up/no I don’t know what”; meanwhile, a preview of upcoming Record Day single ‘Krokodile’, a brash punk-influenced wonder, developed into a free-for-all in the crowd as Clark, and her guitar, jumped into the crowd and started thrashing around like a mad beast, barrelling into unsuspecting hipsters. Even ‘Marrow’, probably the most rock-like song she’s recorded, buffed up and filled out to fit its new status as a “dance song for people who can’t dance”.

As if trying to throw off the audience even more, Clark’s pauses to tune her weapon and prepare herself (and the audience) were transformed into charmingly awkward slices of banter. Her enthusiasm and warmth, butting up against the phenomenally rough and raw musicianship she had be displaying mere seconds before, came across as an eager friend really trying to make sure everybody’s having a good time; an unnecessary measure, perhaps, but appreciated all the same.

The gig’s inevitable encore (one the audience had to damn well earn) seemed to sum up the night perfectly– a stripped-down and achingly poignant rendition of ‘The Party’ (and its tragic demise), separated by a handful of thank- yous from a far more hard-nosed take on Marry Me’s ‘Your Lips Are Red’ that culminated in a mind-boggling ten-minute solo, Clark destroying the room with her phenomenal skill before destroying the guitar itself (well, its strings, anyway).

In album form, St. Vincent is intelligent, evocative, captivating, incredibly talented; live, she’s a fucking whirlwind. If this isn’t one of the best live sets Wellington sees in 2012, then I want to see what is because it must be crazy phenomenal.

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