Sometimes candor is the most complex pose of all.
As St. Vincent, Annie Clark has often cultivated the sort of distance that allows her to toy with expectations, desires, and personae. That performance-artist aspect of her work seems to have peaked on the Masseduction tour, which swung through the Palace Theater in late 2017, where she sang over recordings instead of bringing a backing band and embraced high visual production values. Outfitted alternately in fetishistic red-vinyl and glam alien-silver, that incarnation of St. Vincent played up gender and sexuality as artifice in the manner that pop does so well.
St. Vincent’s brisk survey of her career so far on Tuesday night at the Armory (20 songs in under two hours) was something less extravagant, if maybe not simpler. Clark was again in a costume of sorts—in line with the ’70s retro stylings of her latest album, Daddy’s Home, her blonde ‘do, blue blazer, and flowing blouse/scarf ensemble suggested a stylized Pan Am flight attendant or a glossy Virginia Slims ad. Yet the singer and guitarist herself was loose, amicable, engaging—an entertainer, introducing her latest set of songs to fans, along with some old favorites. At times, she approached the approachable.
Clark eased her way into the new material, mixing older tracks with those her ambivalently received new album. After an introductory recording of Shep and the Limeliters’ doo-wop gem “Daddy’s Home” (heh) faded away, the band provided an extended wah-wah overture to “Digital Witness” before the star appeared. That 2014 track flowed into the Daddy’s Home song “Down,” and the set ping-ponged between past and present for most of the night.
Impressively, old and new songs felt of a piece, the band accentuating the plastic soul elements of St. Vincent’s older work and discovering jagged arty contours in the new material. If the performances of the Daddy’s Home tracks didn’t quite recapture the grimy density of the recorded versions, the arrangements on songs like “Pay Your Way In Pain” and “Daddy’s Home” itself did dig into their grooves, preventing the ’70s pastiches from feeling like static museum pieces. The older songs sounded much bigger than in their recordings, particularly revved-up takes on “Actor out of Work” and “Birth in Reverse,” as well as the late-set highlight “Cheerleader,” which uncoiled from its wiry and austere origins to boom loud enough for a much larger room.
As for the room we were in, the Armory might have been an overly ambitious booking. If there are enough St. Vincent fans in the Twin Cities to fill the downtown Minneapolis venue, many of them had other plans last night, and this took some toll on the intimacy Clark tried to cultivate. A handful of attendees didn’t even seem to care what the event was: After a few older fellows in a VIP booth (casually dressed businessmen entertaining clients?) were served from a bottle of vodka with a flashing light in it, they yelled “Let the games begin!” (I guess daddy is home.)
Compared to the previous tour, the set design was relatively straightforward: a cartoonishly stylized cityscape with a pair of puffy clouds completing the charmingly childlike mood. Mid-show an array of diagonally placed neon tubes lit up, and the three backup singers later removed a few of them, wielding them like batons or lightsabers.
Clark even risked some borderline-cornball concert bits. She told a pretty funny joke about being recognized at a restaurant, protesting when the server wouldn’t accept payment, and then being corrected: “Oh no, you don’t pay here. You pay over there.” She fielded a “call” from her “sister” and made us cheer for her, taunting us to be louder than the crowd in Detroit. She worked her way through an effusive set of band intros.
Oh, and she played guitar. Maybe not enough—Clark is one of the few guitarists who could stand to be more self-indulgent in concert. Her artful clanging, which suggests further direction the time-bending scrapes of Robert Fripp could have explored, jars purposely against the rhythm or darts out in swift passages that comment on the song at hand. (She’s also one of the few touring artists I’d love to hear tackle a Prince cover too. One of the weird new-wavey ones, maybe. Something off 1999? Just please not “Purple Rain.”)
The four-song encore might have been more effective had it not favored sweep over immediacy. Beginning with “Year of the Tiger,” then reaching all the way back to 2007 for “Your Lips Are Red,” it climaxed with the slow but not epic Laser Floyd sprawler “Live In the Dream” which would have fit better at a take-a-hit-or-grab-a-beer mid-show moment. And though groovy it might be, closer “The Melting of the Sun” features St. Vincent’s most wince-inspiring lyrics. (Lana Del Rey wouldn’t even try to get away with rhyming “Joni” with “no phony” and “Nina” with “subpoena,” and Mizzes Mitchell and Simone both deserve better.)
In the end, Annie Clark or St. Vincent or both seemed gregarious yet elusive. As on Daddy’s Home itself, her moments of self-expression are acted out behind stylistic masks from past musical styles (including the era-appropriate pose of the confessional singer-songwriter itself). The closer St. Vincent tries to get to us, the harder she seems to know. And that may just be her point these days.
Actor Out of Work
Birth in Reverse
Down and Out Downtown
…At the Holiday Party
Fast Slow Disco
Pay Your Way in Pain
My Baby Wants a Baby
Fear the Future
Year of the Tiger
Your Lips Are Red
Live In the Dream
The Melting of the Sun