State Theatre, Minneapolis
Thursday, April 3, 2014
Robots have gradually taken over pop music for decades. Everyone from Neil Young to Cher to Future play around with Vocoder/Auto-Tune technology, and performers like Janelle Monae have built their acts around android dance moves and storylines. During the 2014 Grammys, Daft Punk won five trophies, but didn't say a word themselves -- because they are robots.
Technology has improved immeasurably in robot rock. For 40 dates in 41 days supporting a new self-titled album of synthesizer-meets-scorched earth guitar shredding, St. Vincent is a lifelike, programmed being. Her sets are heavily structured, and even the banter has been pre-selected. In other words, it's a lot like any ambitiously choreographed stage production. Annie Clark's descent into automatronics could be either a commentary on where musical performance art is heading, and how much is just a meditation on her rigid need for control.
During Thursday evening's performance at State Theatre, it was a good bit of both. On a stage filled with the hottest, blinding lights she could find, St. Vincent performed with a three-piece backing band of keyboardist/guitarist Toko Yasuda, drummer Matt Johnson, and synth player Daniel Mintseris. These three -- who have backed Clark together since 2011's Strange Mercy -- were eventually introduced as the humans onstage, and yet they conquered the material's jagged rhythms and discordant transitions with inhuman precision.
Vocally, these are the St. Vincent songs that the polite crowd had in their vinyl stash. With her pale countenance mostly blank, Clark sang with a fervor. More raw feeling came courtesy of her black dress with a bright-red, guts-like gash on the front. But an occasional smile crept in -- like Scarlett Johansson's inviting voice in the recent artificial intelligence flick Her -- as she learned what the paid clients required. She even dropped a Prince reference into her scripted dialogue to elicit the appropriate cheers.
On the synth-meets-horns stomp that could've ended up on her 2012 collaboration with David Byrne, Love This Giant, "Digital Witness," an expressive "YA?" in between bars felt like the human in her trying to break out. "Bodies, can't you see what everybody wants from you?" she sang during a bass-drop heavy version of Strange Mercy rocker "Cruel." Societal commentaries such as this within her catalog came to the forefront through her anti-physical recreations of the songs.
But then, of course, there was the unprogrammable guitar portion. While the rest of the body of St. Vincent shuffled her feet in miniscule steps or rhythmically bowed like a drinking bird, her fingers were mischievous all over her electric guitar's fingerboard. Fusillades of screeching, squalling whammy bar bombs exploded throughout the night. The Kraftwerk-y whirring of "Every Tear Disappears" was one of many successes of a struggle to overcome her self-imposed constraints. Clark ripped the song's circuitry apart with her solo, and kept her momentum rising with wailing bits in "Surgeon" and a pissed-off "Cheerleader."
All the while, she stepped to the top of a pedestal in the back middle of the stage, and the piercing lights cast monstrous 50-foot shadows of her on the backdrop. But through 12 songs of the set, the crowd stayed comfortably seated. An occasional hoot or "I love you" rang out in the cavernous State, but the effect of an intentional disconnect was a less-than-interactive group. A robot doesn't care what we do, do they? The numbness in the room eventually had to be vanquished.[page]
Clark finally instructed if the audience was so moved, they could stand up and dance in the aisles. Given permission, (some of) the masses obliged. Spiky Actor favorite "Marrow" -- with its pleas for H.E.L.P. -- fit the performance like a Power Glove at this juncture. To follow, the bumping G-funk into dirty blues of "Huey Newton" had St. Vincent doing scissor cuts with her fingers through the air. A fast-flowing, spastic "Bring Me Your Loves," one of the strangest songs of the new album, kept the audience in motion. "I took you off your leash, but I can't make you heel," she sang.
The plates under us shifted. As the anthemic "Northern Lights" commenced, the St. Vincent robot seemed to be breaking down. Meanwhile, the flesh and blood of loose-limbed Annie Clark emerged from underneath the tight armor she had so carefully assembled. Her guitar shredding, unencumbered, looked tame compared to what came next courtesy of "Krokodil." The microphone was extracted from its stand, and Clark flopped all over the stage like a deranged Debbie Harry. Physicality was everything in the moment. And with that, she collapsed. And it was over.
For the encore, St. Vincent returned to the top of her pedestal to play "Strange Mercy." Quietly. Here, the crowd that was mostly used to stillness came in handy. As she explored the song by herself with just an electric guitar turned classical, the walls of the State seemed to fall away, and it felt like a cool summer night in a field. And then the whole thing got doused in gasoline as "My Lips Are Red" brought back the band. With Yasuda as her harmony co-pilot, she grazed the peaked complexity of absolutely everything in this seven-year-old heavy metal showtune on acid.
A robot that aspires to be human can still prove plenty in a live music setting -- but sometimes it's more about what is lacking than what is on display. The crowd's overwhelming response was "Human > Robot," and was a reminder that our pleasures can't always be so easily earned. For St. Vincent, getting that many butts in the seats is a success. If they're content to just stay in their seats, then what? It does build the inevitable tension until the crowd-surfing version of this indie rock star returns. If she ever does. In the mean time, breaking character has rarely been so satisfying.
The Crowd: Well-heeled with expensive hair dye and expensive eyeglasses.
Overheard: "1/6 of these people even know who she is."
Personal bias: I admire St. Vincent. She is a virtuoso who has taken obvious steps to avoid an ordinary career. When her work is strident, I smile through my discomfort. But I often wonder what would happen if she tried to apply all of her talents to a pop-R&B album. It could be bigger than anything.
Random Notebook Dump: My eyes are still ringing.
Birth in Reverse
Laughing With a Mouth of Blood
I Prefer Your Love
Every Tear Disappears
Year of the Tiger
Bring Me Your Loves
Your Lips Are Red
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