God Is In The TV > Reviews > Live > St. Vincent – 02 Academy Leeds, 28/08/2018

St. Vincent – 02 Academy Leeds, 28/08/2018

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It’s almost four years since I last saw St. Vincent, on the Digital Witness Tour (and my first ever review). At that time I wrote in the opening line, “Unlike many football teams you know exactly which St Vincent is going to turn up. The one that gives it both barrels, every time.”

The length of a Presidential term later the lady still makes her presence felt; on stage, musically, socially, culturally and politically. But the nature of the current performances, which showcase her most recent album, ‘Masseduction’ has changed considerably.

I suppose I should have realised that something was up when I saw the two huge EST (previously Edwin Shirley) trucks outside the venue, the biggest I’ve seen since the over-the-top prog rock show days of the 1970s and 1980s. Back in Manchester in 2014 they loaded her stage paraphernalia into the back of a Transit Van. Perhaps that’s what winning a Grammy does for you – makes you think big.

The equipment this time comprised three enormous blocks of hundreds, possibly thousands of individual lights, which looked like roadway Cat’s Eyes – which were invented just down the road from here as it happens – when not illuminated. At stage level and facing the audience, when they were full-on, Annie Clark and her band became mere silhouettes. Above them, a video screen on which various images were projected throughout the set; some touching, some humorous, some just plain weird.

But no-one was there for the video. As she sings on ‘Digital Witness’, “People turn the TV on and throw it out the window”. The real deal was centre stage, mouthing lines for us, dressed in red thigh-length boots and, from my perch in the back row of the balcony of this venerable old institution, what looked like a see-through dress made out of polythene.

Alongside her were her trusted multi-instrumentalist Toko Yasuda (in a nice sensible summer dress), keyboard wizard and Grand Controller Daniel Mintseris, and Jeff Buckley’s drummer, Matt Johnson. Dressed, like Mintseris, in a strange featureless mask similar to those pioneered by New Zealand musician Jonathan Bree, he looked more like Boris Johnson.

To be frank I haven’t understood the significance of the masks and seeing them in the flesh so to speak leaves me no wiser. Perhaps they refer in some arcane way to the #MeToo campaign, Clark consciously isolating and distancing the males – any males – even on stage while the unthreatening Toko frolics freely alongside her.  That’s unlikely, as female dancers have worn them while on stage with her. Whatever the reason Johnson and Mintseris must have been “Sweating…Sweating” their way through the show just as she does on ‘Rattlesnake’.

Then again, St. Vincent has habitually both sung and acted in riddles. Who could have guessed for example that her seminal early song ‘Paris is Burning’, sadly rarely performed these days, is about Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans and the U.S. government’s failure to deal with that disaster?

Aficionados will realise this is what has become her de facto band, the same, excellent, one that accompanied the Digital Witness tour. But that is where the similarities end.

Digital Witness, in which Clark’s character was that of a ‘Future Cult Leader’ was succeeded initially by the Fear the Future tour last year, one which saw her performing solo to backing tapes. That itself has morphed into this much less menacing ‘I Am a Lot like You!’ extravaganza, which itself is a line in opening song ‘Sugarboy’.

The fearsome, strutting, death-defying cult leader (who climbed numerous balconies, towers and speaker stacks, on one occasion falling and injuring her self quite badly), has turned into a bibbity-bobbity character who, with the exception of a few “fucks” and “m*****f*****s” has more in common with Kylie than an imposing rock star. Far more passive than aggressive.

Following an odd, 1980’s disco DJ set which served as the support act, she rattled through her show like an express train, forsaking her usual lengthy diatribes and wry observations, indeed barely speaking at all apart from a singular welcome to the “weirdos” she has always considered herself to be and a neutral “I love you Leeds”. She’s even lost her Texan drawl and sounds more like apple pie-making mum Olivia from The Waltons.

The way she presents the repertoire has changed, too. It has become more electronic still; there’s even more fuzz on the guitar so that the retention of the original guitar riff on ‘Cruel’ was a blessing. Solos are fewer and further between. Apart from the ballads, the songs seem funkier and yet on ‘Huey Newton’ the original funk disappeared altogether, along with the intricate dance routine with Toko and it actually became a ballad. I didn’t even recognise ‘Marrow’. Suddenly I realised that if she tried to perform ‘Paris is Burning’ in this set, or, say, ‘Black Rainbow’ they would seem oddly out of place, like something from another era altogether.

I’ve chronicled some of the older songs from the set but of course ‘Masseduction’ is its raison d’être. Many of the 2,000-strong audience were there on account of that album and over half the songs were from it.

I’ll be candid. While I did not review the album and despite what heavyweights like Pitchfork, The Line of Best Fit and The Quietus might tell you I don’t believe it is her most accomplished work. I think Annie Clark perfected her futuristic vision and peaked on St Vincent; at least for now.

The Masseduction songs for the most part don’t have the same impact on me and that translated into this live performance. The first four songs were from that album and while they were fine the show only really got going with ‘Huey Newton’ even in its truncated and comparatively acoustic format. Then it picked up again later with a run of four songs – ‘Cruel’, ‘Cheerleader’,’ Digital Witness’ and finally ‘Rattlesnake’ though even that lost its dramatic closing solo.

Some of the tracks from Masseduction failed to transfer successfully to the stage. ‘Pills’ is a feel-good song on the album despite its subject matter but live it was in need of some; preferably uppers. ‘Savior’ was unable to save itself.

And yet towards the end, as if she’s planned it that way, came two little delights. Firstly ‘Slow Disco’, one of Clark’s most melodic pop songs which got the audience clapping along and singing its most memorable line “Don’t it beat a slow dance to death?”. Then the poignant ballad version of ‘New York’ during which the audience sang half of it themselves.

The three-song encore continued in the same vein with St Vincent performing alone or just with Daniel Mintseris for the last two. First ‘Smoking Section’ then the penultimate song, ‘Happy Birthday, Johnny’ which concerns the shady character that has featured in several of her compositions over the years and it is a highly personal statement. It was followed, surprisingly, “because I’m in a Johnny mood” by a solo ballad version of ‘Prince Johnny’ from the previous album.

Sadly that meant no ‘Severed Crossed Fingers’, for me the best track she’s laid down and which she played at the previous show in Edinburgh. She rarely performs it and I suspect that, as she has hinted, it is simply too personal and too close to her heart for her to attempt it without breaking down (as indeed she does on the recorded track). I live in hope and continue to keep mine crossed.

There are certain expectations from a St. Vincent set and many of them are based on visual representations. Her original fans will remember her sitting cross-legged on the floor during performances, scurrying between instruments on her knees and in between songs telling long rambling stories like an excited schoolgirl.

More recent converts will recall the closely choreographed dance routines of the previous tour, the dramatic slow tumbling down a Step Pyramid into an inverted Cross at the end of ‘Prince Johnny’ and the lengthy pseudo-political speeches and bizarre anecdotes. I once saw this polymath give an off-the-cuff lecture on Renaissance Art to a Roman audience.

There is virtually none of this in the present tour. It is more in the way of a 1960’s concert with four people stood or sat almost stock still much of the time, the visual ‘excitement’ being created by the latter-day fusion of lights and video rather than human movement. There are no peaks. Or troughs.

But as Annie Clark is behind it you can be sure of one thing. It all means something and she knows exactly what she’s doing.

Main photo: Nedda Afsari courtesy of St. Vincent Facebook page

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