REVIEW: Ready player one—St. Vincent builds an imperfect world on stage

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St. Vincent, Annie Clark, MASSEDUCTION

Photos: Paige K. Parsons

SAN FRANCISCO — St. Vincent, singer-guitar virtuoso Annie Clark, is using her tour for her fifth album, 2017’s Masseduction, to create an imperfect world on stage. It’s a world of outward perfection but with enough weird kinks to to communicate a dystopia. It’s kind of like the Matrix. And she’s accomplishing this all by herself, with no backing band. In its place are backing tracks, and lots of Clark on the screen—sometimes five or six Clarks at a time.

This multiplicity portrays the sense of anxiety and unease Clark must have been feeling while making this music. Sometimes, the Clark on screen is a 1950s Stepford Wife, a plasticized doll, left to perform menial functions like raising an arm, swiveling her neck, etc. The personal nature of the songs—Clark is fighting lingering memories of a breakup—may have dictated this journey she decided to undertake alone.

But the success of the performance at Bill Graham Civic Auditorium on Monday may come down to whether you appreciated St. Vincent’s solo performance, with nothing but a virtual tape deck for backup. The “Fear the Future” tour comes in two parts: The first 10 songs cherry-picked from St. Vincent’s first four records, followed by a three-minute intermission and then the entirety of Masseduction, in order.

A solo performance is not uncommon for acoustic singer-songwriters, but St. Vincent’s sound is a dense beast. Besides the drums, bass and backing guitars, there were frequent string accompaniments as well. The backing tracks sometimes overpowered her impressive guitar playing, creating the sense that we were witnessing more of an art-pop production than a rock concert. And we probably were.

Looking the part of a supermodel out of a ZZ Top video, in pink skin-tight leather, stiletto-heeled thigh-high boots and slicked-back hair, St. Vincent made her entrance not in grand fashion but through a small part in the stage curtain. She held only a microphone, singing, “Marry Me,” off her 2007 debut. Somberly, she delivered lines like “Marry me, John, I’ll be so good to you/ You won’t realize I’m gone.” Afterward, a stagehand dressed like a ninja (her techs were also in costume and were the only others to make appearances on stage) delivered to her the first of many candy-colored custom guitars, and she kicked into “Now, Now.”

The rest of act one included songs from her first four albums played chronologically. After each song, the curtain would reveal a little more of the stage, and eventually, even if you didn’t know there was no band on stage, you would find out. During the rest of act one St. Vincent was a whirling dervish of anxiety, curled up on the floor during “Strange Mercy,” singing into one of the microphones that looked in multiple directions, just not head-on into the audience.

As she worked to the grand conclusion of “Rattlesnake” and “Birth in Reverse,” two additional curtains that had created a triangular performance space behind St. Vincent parted, revealing an image of the melting face of a fanged woman (or possibly an angry Grinch) as she portrayed a character who was possibly about to snap. End Scene. The curtains were drawn for intermission.

When St. Vincent returned just a few minutes later, gone was the pink latex, replaced by a silver outfit and green armbands. During this set, Clark addressed the audience numerous times between the songs of Masseduction, which were sometimes performed with new arrangements.

She continued to shred on the guitar, with the album’s title track and “Pills” being the two highlights, but some of the best moments came during songs like “Happy Birthday, Johnny” and “New York,” on which she sang with simple backing arrangements. Before the latter, she joked that the song could have been about San Francisco, had the city’s name been one syllable shorter: “One day, you’ll have a song written about you, other than that Rice-a-Roni one.” While the more aggressive songs communicated mixed emotions and confusion, “New York” and “Happy Birthday, Johnny,” were simpler, heartfelt and sad.

During this second act, the image of the melted face woman was replaced with a video screen blaring images of St. Vincent: slow-motion video of her reacting to things off-screen, from her recent music video shoots, her apparent love of ‘60s-inspired Bauhaus chairs and at one point, of her eating a wriggling alien-like bug.

St. Vincent’s performance was nuanced; much more so than I can describe here, with layers that some fans likely missed. But it was meant to communicate on many levels. Like a Salvador Dalí painting, it takes some time to process. But so long as you weren’t dead set on seeing a full band perform, you were likely to walk home happy.

Jazz-soul duo Tuck and Patti, who also happen to be Annie Clark’s uncle and aunt, opened the show with a 30-minute set of covers including Jimi Hendrix’s “Castles Made of Sand” and Stevie Wonder’s “I Wish.” But it was an original sparse, melancholy song called “Strength” that struck the most personal chord. Vocalist Patti Andress prefaced the song with a story of seeing a mother of three children inside a grocery store, struggling to decide what she would return because she could not afford everything in her basket.

The Bay Area residents displayed terrific showmanship: he with fast fretwork, she with warm, quick vocal delivery, and both with their onstage banter.

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