St Vincent, gig review: Annie Clark earns her place on a pedestal

Shepherd's Bush Empire, London

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The Independent Culture

The cover of Annie Clark’s latest album - the self-titled St Vincent - sees the singer/master guitar-player sat regally upon a pink throne, like some alien high priestess about to blast you with lazer eyes, or possibly a dose of distorted, dark space-funk.

Live, we’re missing the throne, but she does come with a three-piece band and a tiered, pastel-pink podium; they’ll be cheers when she finally ascends it to belt out “Cheerleader”, a suitably bold, guitar-thrashing, drum-smashing anthem that’s as fuzzed out as her curly grey hairdo.

That was from her last album, 2011’s majestic Strange Mercy, but before we reach it there’s a thorough introduction to the new material.

Not that this is any hardship: the latest album is her most coherent and well-constructed yet, and early tracks tonight - the jerky adrenaline-shot “Rattlesnake” (written after Clark had to flee such creatures when out taking a walk naked, as you do) and the cymbal-tapping and tightly-wrought riffs of “Birth in Reverse” - show off its most accessible moments.

And they reveal her guitar-playing chops, her fingers twitching and rucking up and down the neck like crackling lightning. 

Clark gives every track a full live treatment: one minute it’s coolly precise robot dancing, the next she’s writhing and arching on the floor, or inviting the crowd to play her instrument till a security guard scoops her back onstage. Technical hitches shall not fluster her. She still does her trademark tottering, scurrying high-heeled baby-steps, but for this tour a fellow female second guitarist synchronizes with her; their joint motion is weirdly reminiscent of the gliding aliens from Mars Attacks.

On the luxuriously silky ballad “I Prefer Your Love”, Clark lounges on that pedestal, crooning beautifully; soon, she’s tumbling down the steps like a broken doll. If that all sounds ickily infantilizing or sexualised, it isn’t - it’s too odd, and too wholly her own style. Clark, with her short skirt and thrusting playing, toys with her sexuality but no-one could doubt who’s in control here. She’s as fierce as her music, which frequently reaches brain-cell blitzing levels of distortion, as she whips herself into a frenzy, or tears into the sort of spectacularly indulgent solo that would have Jimi Hendrix spinning - with delight - in his grave.

The performative aspects of the show were moulded by her tour last year with David Byrne, which featured a jovially choreographed brass section; such upbeat multi-instrumentalism is missed here - especially on the cracking new, horn-heavy track “Digital Witness”.

Clark’s lyrics range from the dreamily opaque to the soul-baringly frank, but this song offers her most graspable, if wry, comment on the modern world, in all its Instagrammed, selfie-taking obsession: “if I can't show it, if you can't see me /what's the point of doing anything?“ she sings. Indeed, we’re asked not to record the evening on any digital devices, but to be in the moment: not a difficult request coming from one so striking.

Clark earns that place on a pedestal.