St. Vincent brings audience appreciation back to District
Washington, D.C., is often criticized for its lackluster music scene. Several writers and artists have said it possesses the same rigid lack of originality that the city’s politics exhibit. Maybe it’s only a small step in shedding this reputation, but Annie Clark of St. Vincent redeemed the Capital’s music listeners last Wednesday, when she played an awing show at 9:30 club and repeatedly praised D.C. and its residents for providing her with some of her fullest and most enthusiastic shows in her past. Her audience seemed aware of the significance of this praise and responded by delivering her another ardent reception.
Such a response was not very difficult for the D.C. crowd. The band and its technical assists made masterful use of light, sound and time to effect an atmosphere that forced itself onto everyone in the room. This became evident from the opening song, “The Strangers,” where lowlights lit Clark with alternating red, green and white light. The effect did not go unnoticed — first, because it was perfectly in rhythm with the tempo of the song, and second because it completely changed Annie’s appearance relative to her background. Even having heard “The Strangers” a hundred times, the audience immediately became aware they weren’t listening to a CD anymore; this was truly a piece of performance art.
Once the show took off with “The Strangers,” “Save Me from What I Want” and “Black Rainbow,” St. Vincent turned up the bass and engulfed the stage with reverb. The band performed creative renditions of some of their lesser-known songs by slowing down the tempo, changing the octave or emphasizing different instruments. If listeners didn’t realize there was a flute and violin part in almost all of St. Vincent’s songs, they did after this show.
Clark frequently allowed her supporting band members to take over the melody, her elegant voice working with, not over, instruments, giving Wednesday’s show a more diverse and experimental feel than her recorded tracks. For the more attentive listeners, even more effects were noticed. For example, the violin part in “The Bed,” alternated between live violin and a prerecorded violin track. The transition between the two was seamless, and the artful subtlety of the technique added depth to St. Vincent’s performance.
The most impressive part of Clark’s individual performance was her interaction with the crowd. She talked about several empty shows she played while touring “Actor” and riled the club by contrasting them with D.C.’s reliably big turnout. After recalling a hilarious story that she “shouldn’t be telling” about an S&M club she nearly played in Ohio, she playfully joked, “How many lawyers are in the crowd? ... They can protect us if that gets us.”
Although audience members were not always responsive to her humor, Clark felt the obvious warmth of the interaction and continued to engage her fans throughout the show. This was especially true after the crowd cheered the band back onstage for an encore.
After everyone was positioned behind her, Clark introduced her supporting cast to the audience and thanked her technical staff. It seems odd that such a ritual should take place at the end of a show, but Clark seemed to want to reward her audience for their loyalty and excitement and the resulting intimacy was uncommonly apparent.
The encore, in fact, deserves its own mention. St. Vincent returned to the stage for two songs: first for a solo performance of “Paris is Burning” by Clark, and then for a fanciful rendition of “Your Lips Are Red” by the whole band. Of the two, “Your Lips Are Red” was clearly the most powerful. The song — which normally is a little under five minutes — stretched to almost 15 minutes in this performance. For more than half of that time, Clark was kneeling on the ground in front of the microphone stand with her chest pressed up against her knees and her forehead nearly touching the ground. Meanwhile, a spectacle of light awed the crowd. Two sets of oscillating white lights and three stationary strobe lights gradually elevated their focus from the floor of the stage to directly in the face of the crowd, perfectly building with the melody until Clark stood up for a powerful climax that isn’t present in the recorded version of the song. The audience response, more than at any other point in the show, reflected joy and awe as much as appreciation.
The style of their encore reflected St. Vincent’s attitude toward the whole performance. To turn a satisfactory show into a truly memorable one, St. Vincent extended, personalized and beautified every aspect of their performance. Washington D.C., so often marginalized in conversations about music and art, certainly appreciated the favor.
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