Sometimes you follow a musician through an album or three, and steep yourself in the music till you think you know pretty well what that person’s creative being is about. Then you go to hear them in a concert, and you realize that the portrait you built in your mind had a big hole in it.
So it was for me in my first live encounter with Annie Clark, who has made three albums as St. Vincent, the latest of which, Strange Mercy, came out in September. Even her simplest songs (and many are not simple at all) feel like they’ve been made from new-minted materials put together with precision tools, maybe even with the aid of an electron microscope.
When she walks on stage, however, St. Vincent puts a lot of herself into a more explosive piece of equipment: her electric guitar. I’m sure that part of her spent the evening trying to make sure that everything was in its right place, as on the records, but another side was determined to show us that yes, she can play the hell out of that guitar, and rock the house doing it.
It was kind of mind-blowing to see her sing a chorus full-out in her crystal soprano voice, while playing some blazing guitar riff that would seem to demand more than casual attention. In this one way, St. Vincent is a bit like Feist, another mean guitarist who uses her instrument as a dark counterweight to her voice. And for St. Vincent, no shade of dark was too much: Every time I thought she’d reached her limit in grainy, heavy, grumbly guitar sound, she hit another pedal and proved me wrong.
She played through the new album, whose arrangements (modest by comparison to Actor, her tour-de-force disc from 2009) were spread across guitar, drums and a pair of synthesizers whose seething contributions I found, after a while, a bit unrelenting. “Save me from what I want,” she sang in the song by that title , summarizing the tension that runs through much of her work, between the need for an orderly world and the desire to put everything on the line, whatever the cost.
The dramatization of that last impulse, of course, is what we expect from rock stars, and St. Vincent plays the part with gusto. Her biggest moves in that direction came during an incendiary cover of She Is Beyond Good and Evil, a 30-year-old tune by Bristol’s the Pop Group that she offered, last month, as her only number on a high-profile performance on Late Night with Jimmy Fallon. Her cover sounded more dangerous than the original, with snarling, raging guitar breaks and go-for-broke vocals (“I’ll hold you like a gun!”) that hinted that she might like to have a turn, in another life, at being Jimmy Page and Robert Plant, simultaneously.
Near the end of the show, she crowd-surfed, still playing, still keeping the well-tooled elements of her song-craft together – because whatever craziness St. Vincent gets up to in concert, she’s still an obsessively careful maker of songs, and bloody good ones too. The one little disappointment of her performance was that her vocal pitch was sometimes shaky, and often sharp.
The show opened with a short set by Cold Specks (Al Spx), a young singer from Etobicoke with a hefty voice and a hard-time, field-of-prayers singing style that put me in mind of Odetta. Her material was clearly linked to gospel traditions, but not confined to them, and her simple two-guitar instruments steered clear of any obvious models. Someone to watch out for, as her songwriting evolves.
- At the Phoenix Concert Theatre
- In Toronto on Thursday
St. Vincent plays Ottawa’s Ritual on Friday and Theatre Corona in Montreal on Saturday.