Before Annie Clark stepped out on stage in her stage incarnation as a shock-haired St. Vincent, a robotic voice filled Portland’s Crystal Ballroom with an announcement. Sounding like an admonitory Speak N’ Spell, the message asked the gathered audience to politely refrain from digitally recording the performance and by implication, simply engage with it as an experience. Naturally, Clark was barely visible before a multitude of hands popped up all around me, specks of smartphone brightness against a packed crowd of darkness.
Clark is not alone in her unheeded request for people to get off their damn phones while she’s playing. Recently, the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, She & Him, Neko Case, Björk and Savages have all expressed desire for their audiences to stop taking shoddy videos for Youtube and just get into it, the lattermost summing it up the general attitude with the statement “WE BELIEVE THAT THE USE OF PHONES TO FILM AND TAKE PICTURES DURING A GIG PREVENTS ALL OF US FROM TOTALLY IMMERSING OURSELVES.” But it is truly bizarre to witness such a simple, understandable request be totally ignored by multiple people, especially when it’s as much for their benefit as the performer.
Maybe all this makes me sound like a curmudgeon. But regardless, it’s notable that even with a performer who explicitly asks them not to and has a single out with the lyrics “If I can’t show it, if you can’t see me/ What’s the point of doing anything,” people just can’t stop from obsessively recording what they can already see with their own eyes.
But before all of this, the lights in the Crystal Ballroom went dark at the exact stroke of 8 pm, an impressive feat of coordination. The opening act was billed as Noveller, the musical sobriquet of one Sarah Lipstate. She strode out onto a nearly bare stage while a ripple of interest went through the crowd, which was already far too dense to get anywhere near the front. Without a word, Lipstate took a bow to the strings of an electric guitar and unleashed a wave of noise. Throughout her 30 minute set of instrumentals, Noveller performed with pre-recorded backing, but it never sounded like she was compensating for a lack of a band. Lipstate’s music is deep and immersive, with cuts off her excellent release No Dreams sounding cinematic and frightening in a live setting. At times, her instrument was so distorted as to sound nothing like a guitar; high notes sounded like needles scratching at my eardrums and the bass for all the world like the blare of a foghorn.
Lipstate first spoke 11 minutes into her set, and then to only cheerfully introduce herself. For most of the rest of her time, she let her music speak for itself. There was a brief, yet tortuous gap period as the stage was set up for St. Vincent, and the Crystal’s already packed room just got fuller. For those outside of Portland, the Crystal Ballroom has famously flexible floors, to the point where a heavy walker beside you can actually distend the boards. The crowd was dense enough that the entire place felt like it was swaying under the weight of several hundred Converses.
There was a palpable surge of energy when Clark finally appeared under an array of bright white lights. I saw St. Vincent at the same venue three years earlier on her ‘Strange Mercy” tour, but the experience was worlds away from the first moment. While the Clark of 2011 had dressed all in black on a shadowed stage, rarely speaking directly to the audience, Clark 2.0 was clad in a white and red dress and sporting her now-distinctive mane of white hair, which can only be described as somewhere between Einstein and the Bride of Frankenstein. Throughout the course of the concert, the singer would periodically pause between songs to slowly and thoughtfully describe points that were in common between her and the audience, sometimes to the point of vivid and ridiculous specificity. Trashcan lid wings as a child were referenced, as was the point that your family doesn’t know everything about you, which yes, well, that does apply to everyone. At times, it felt sentimental, but others, overtly theatrical.
Of course, her audience patter had nothing on her choreography. Before she even launched into “Rattlesnake” the first song of both her performance and most recent, self-titled album, Clark stood in a series of frozen poses, looking less like a human and more like a life-size porcelain doll. During another song, Clark and her sidewoman Toko Yasuda (who alternated between backing her up on keyboard and guitar) didn’t miss a lick as they simultaneously pitched forward to touch the crowns of their heads. The entire show felt elaborately composed, carefully timed and monitored, though tracks like “Digital Witness” and “Regret” felt more thrillingly muscular live than they do on St. Vincent, and Clark’s vaunted guitar skills were far more apparent. On Strange Mercy’s “Cruel,” she hit the highest, strongest notes with ease and the intimate, mathematical precision of her guitar work were present in even the loudest moments. While she seems reticent to obviously show off her chops on record, the musician was standing on her monitor speakers and shredding just a few minutes in and took a solo on seemingly nearly every song.
“I Prefer Your Love” came closest to feeling like a put-on, with Clark putting down her guitar and posing semi-recumbent. It felt like something out a mid-1990s Madonna show, though the ethereal synths of the song might have something to do with that. The pure warmth of the song pushed it through to sincerity, but Clark’s newfound fondness for elaborate stagecraft did sometimes teeter on the edge of artificiality. It’d be easy to put some of the blame for that on her recent collaborator David Byrne, and frankly, it’d be accurate too. For better or worse, St. Vincent has picked up his taste for theatricality. Fortunately, it has in no way diminished or altered her remarkable stage presence, sheer badassery or talent. Clark may have put on a very different show from three years ago, but no less amazing of one.