St. Vincent: A New, Old-Fashioned Rock Star

At New York City's Webster Hall, the indie rocker shreds guitar and thrills a roomful of music nerds.

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St. Vincent performs at Tipitina's on October 26, 2011 in New Orleans, Louisiana.

Several songs into St Vincent’s set at New York City’s Webster Hall last night, someone shouted, “Shred it, Annie!”

“She doesn’t shred,” bellowed an indignant-sounding fan from across the room.

“Yes she does!” offered a third.

“What is this, a live twitter feed?” the artist, née Annie Clark, retorted before launching back into her dark guitar riffs.

Leave it to a Berkelee College of Music dropout to inspire a fan base of intellectually anguished music nerds. The former member of Sufjan Stevens’ touring band and the Polyphonic Spree doesn’t construct easy songs. Even her simpler arrangements (you know, ones that don’t require woodwind sections) are full of complex rhythms, sophisticated use of distortion and the occasional showcase of her incredibly gifted guitar work – most notably on recent songs “Surgeon” and “Northern Lights.”

But does she actually shred? I think she does. It’s a little hard to tell, because the stage lighting descends into a distracting, epilepsy-inducing strobe whenever she starts a solo. Regardless, the riffs are a nice counterpoint to her sweet, wide-ranging voice. She can achieve a kind of crystalline high on songs like “Cruel” and then turn around and growl through a cover of  obscure post-punk band Pop Group’s “She’s Beyond Good and Evil.”

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What’s more, there’s an old-fashioned rock star quality to the way Clark commands the stage. She’s often compared to David Bowie or David Byrne (the latter of whom was in attendance last night), and rightly so. Though often, when a woman is ascribed the qualities of legendary male rockers, it is because her stage presence is a male pantomime. Not so with Clark. There is nothing masculine about the tentative, crooked pony step she demonstrates while wailing on her guitar; nothing masculine, even, about the way she stage dives, mid-riff. And that’s remarkable: a beautiful, 29-year-old woman (with her porcelain skin and steady, pioneer woman stare, she looks more indie pinup than hard-charging rocker) fronting a tough, art-rock band and commanding a mostly male audience.

Clark is in the midst of a tour in support of her third record, Strange Mercy. She’s been moving eastward throughout the fall: after a show in Boston tonight, she’ll head to Europe for a month and then back to North America’s northeastern corner. That means she’ll be playing Buffalo, Toronto and Montreal just as winter truly grips that corner of the world – an apt bit of scheduling: There’s something hard and cold and cutting about Strange Mercy.

It’s been reported that the Brooklyn-based Clark worked on Strange in the empty, unused Seattle studio of her friend and Death Cab for Cutie drummer Jason McGerr following a difficult year in her personal life. And it truly is a record built on loneliness, one that aches with the kind of recriminations and revisions we mentally impose on the memories of people who have hurt us – or whom we have hurt. “I-I-I-I don’t want to be your cheerleader no more/ I don’t know what I deserve/but for you I could work,” she pleads on “Cheerleader.” It’s surprising that Clark called herself St. Vincent, after the hospital where the poet Dylan Thomas died or, as she’s put it, “the place where poetry comes to die.” If there’s a better elegy to that sinking feeling of having your suspicions confirmed, I don’t know it: “So I thought I’d learned my lesson / But I secretly expected / A choir at the shore / And confetti through the fall night air,” she sings on “Northern Lights.”

Her previous solo work, on the sweet debut Marry Me and more intellectual follow up, Actor were critically acclaimed and earned her a devoted following, but so far, Strange has been the most popular to date: debuting at 19 on the Billboard 200 in the United States. Last night’s sold out show was simulcast by MTV Hive, a sure sign of crossover. But her fans, surely the types to mind that sort of thing, seemed unperturbed: there’s no denying her artistry, her technical chops and frankly, her bare-faced honesty when she says, “I want to make a record that’s more human every time.”

St. Vincent plays tonight in Boston at the Royale and will be back State-side with a show in Buffalo on Dec. 13.

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