On the second night of the debut of Red Bull’s famed Red Bull Music Academy in Los Angeles, once and future music industry champion St. Vincent headlined a special set buried within Paramount Pictures’ New York backlot. Yes, throngs of fans crammed on a small sidewalk in Hollywood attempting to get into a show boasting the first performance of a special set from the indie heroine. Those that have been with us at mxdwn for years and years will remember that St. Vincent holds the prestigious honor of topping our annual album of the year list twice (a feat only accomplished otherwise by Kanye West). Her early work on albums Marry Me and Actor was straightforward and peppy, but most importantly showed auspicious promise. Strange Mercy and the self-titled 2014 album delivered on this promise, taking her skillful guitar playing, serene vocals and fearless production and evolving it into a confection of delirious artistry. Her sound morphed into a hazy yet sparing series of compositions, each framed around either a profound witticism or a smart melody.
Tonight’s set took minimalism to its logical extreme. Appearing stage right in a pink unitard, a giant black curtain was pulled back only slightly. Revealing only enough of the stage to show Annie Clark, the artist otherwise known as St. Vincent. This show it would seem would be done entirely without the standard full backing band she has utilized lo these many years. Gone were the stage risers and backing keyboardists. This show was done with all instrumentation (save for Clark’s guitar playing) triggered through the P.A. system. Thankfully, the orchestration was lush and flawless, not unlike the immaculate production Kanye West has used on recent tours. It never felt like the music was simply played from a shitty source, and her vocals blended perfectly in with the arrangement.
She opened simply playing a subdued take on the title track from her debut album, Marry Me. The show would move fully chronologically from there. “Now, Now” also off Marry Me followed suit as St. Vincent moved only from stage right to stage center as a small portion of the black curtain was drawn back just a touch further. A third microphone was revealed at stage left as the black curtain was fully removed. She again adjusted her position to that microphone and did a more electronic take on her breakthrough hit “Actor Out of Work.” This would be the only song on the evening pulled from her first hit album, Actor. This would become the motif of all of the songs in the first half of the set from her career up until this point. Each song was recast and slightly slowed down, adding drum machine and delicate electronic pulsation. Each song recast delicately into the mold of what would come in the second half of the set…
As Clark only slightly repositioned herself in between songs, she dropped in spritely renditions of superb Strange Mercy cuts “Cruel,” “Cheerleader” and title track “Strange Mercy.” “Cheerleader” may have rendered out as the most powerful of the three, but it was “Strange Mercy” that continued the metamorphosis of the show’s staging/lighting design. A second curtain behind main floor of the stage was pulled apart to reveal a massive banner, comprised of some cartoonish visage of what appeared to be a vampire. Even that garnered a huge cheer from the crowd. The first half of the show ended with the best from 2014 self-titled St. Vincent release. The playful horns of “Digital Witness” were toned down allowing for focus on Clark’s nimble guitar playing. “Rattlesnake” played roughly as it does on record, allowing for dancing amidst the masses present. Sadly, the hit song “Birth in Reverse” seemed to be a trigger for large numbers of fans present to just abruptly leave. Doubly curious was their fickle fandom as it was clearly only about the halfway point of the show.
It was their loss as the rest of the show from this point on was the entirety of her upcoming album Masseduction. From the sound of it, St. Vincent has another massive hit on her hands. The album was played in order, running from “Hang On Me” all the way through “Smoking Section.” At this point, the vampire backdrop was removed to reveal a full video wall. Each song from this latter half of the set had a full video accompaniment. Some footage was culled from the “New York” video, but the vast majority of it appeared to be drawn from the shoots that ended up making the “Los Ageless” video that Red Bull helped produce. “Pills” was an elaborate tapestry of syncopation. The video footage highlighted Clark and several actors looking arty and statueseque. This would be the dominating visual theme of the evening, as it would serve to couch the entire performance as being a form of high pop art, more elegant and demure than silly and enthusiastic.
Not surprisingly by the title, “Masseduction” flirted with enamored sexuality as Clark sang repeatedly, “Don’t do that / it turns me on.” Things ramped up considerably from there as “Sugarboy” and “Los Ageless” took her pitch perfect mash-ups of plucky guitars, staccato pitter patter drum machines and lush electronics into the stratosphere. “Los Ageless” in particular is destined to be a mega hit. It’s an intoxicating blend of power, verve and cathartic longing. The songs remaining edged in a different direction. While the first half of Masseduction went for bombast and arty fun, the latter half delved deeper into the darkened state of Western Civilization. “Happy Birthday, Johnny” plays as an ode to a friend long lost, Clark ending the song with the words, “When you get free Johnny I hope you find peace.” Longing ballad and first single “New York” aimed for somber reflection, pondering on loves and heroes both lost and irretrievable. As things neared conclusion “Fear the Future” spoke to that exact sentiment. It is rife with lyrical imagery set to the backdrop of the chaotic state of the modern political landscape both at home and abroad. “Young Lover” eschews the stoic statuesque/Warhold inspired imagery on the video walls in favor of a rendering of an interstellar warp at lightspeed.
It all ended darkly on “Smoking Section,” as Clark wistfully imagined her own immolation. She sang, “Sometimes I sit in the smoking section / hoping for one rogue spark / to end my direction.” She repeated the words, “Let it happen,” as if the current state of the world is almost too much to bear. The set ended there, without encore, farewell or massive posturing. It was a simplistic, stylistic and sublime rendering of one of the most deserving, ascendant musicians of the last decade. That is truly saying something considering the quality of music in general these past ten years has been otherworldly higher than most preceding decades. What’s more, it’s evident that St. Vincent is being positioned and framed for the kind of popular explosion that most fans have thought she was ready for nearing six years already. She is in her own way, the total package. She is a unique presence, voice and visionary artist, the likes of which music has sorely needed. In a time over flowing with explosive new stars, many arguably reaching fame beyond what they perhaps deserve, this is one star-in-the-making that will wear the crown wisely and with grace. This showing at tonight’s event is constructed with the lavish precision that would seem befitting only at an arena level position of overflowing popularity. It just might be time. Finally.
File photo by Raymond Flotat