By Gabriel Mathews
I feel like I start all of these reviews with some variant on “I didn’t know what to expect…” But I really didn’t know what to expect out of St. Vincent’s appearance at The Grammy Museum the other night. Having bought and then sold a crappy mezzanine ticket to her show at the Wiltern the following night, I was super excited to learn that she was doing something else in town, and snapped up a ticket right away, not knowing what I was getting myself into. It was only on the day of the show that I looked up the program for the evening—because what kind of show happens at The Grammy Museum?—and learned that her “performance” would be preceded by an interview with museum director Bob Santelli and a brief audience Q&A. As I pulled into L.A. Live (LA’s Times Square, but lame!) I wondered what this “performance” would consist of. Would Annie Clark have a band with her? Would she play more than three songs? Would this essentially just be promo for her new fourth record, St. Vincent? As I found out, the more salient question was: What would this interview be like?
The answer, in short, is “terrible.” Santelli seemed like a decent enough guy, who had listened to the music and really appreciated it, but goddamn, was he a shitty interviewer. Clark, her hair faded down to a basic platinum from the awesome purple gray adorning the new record’s cover, did her level best to answer his questions with honesty and humor, but the guy really didn’t give her much to work with. Here’s a paraphrased transcript of the kind of tripe I’m talking about:
Santelli: So, you’re a woman making music. That didn’t really happen much until the nineties, when you were an impressionable teenager. What’s up with that?
Clark: Umm… I mean, there were women making music for a long time before that. Like Nina Simone and Buddy Guy’s guitarists and so on. So, uh, yeah. Sleater- Kinney? Pass.
S: Sweet! As a consummate guitarist yourself, you must have some favorites, right? Who are they?
C: Um, I mean, yeah, there are a lot. Jimi Hendrix is pretty great.
S: He sure is! The song “Rattlesnake,” wow. Can you tell us where that came from? What are the lyrics about?
C: [Tells already ubiquitous “Rattlesnake” story, which Santelli has surely already heard.] Ha! So I just really didn’t even have to use my imagination for that one.
S: Gee whiz. You’re just so creative! As a music critic, who might hear things in records that the average fan might not be picking up on, I can really say that this album has a lot of, uh, “twists and turns” on it. Where does that come from?
C: I’m restless, I guess! I get bored easily [Hint hint.]
S: Wow. Yeah. Restless! For sure! So, what’s your creative process like?
C: [Blasé answer to blasé question.]
S: You grew up in Tulsa, Oklahoma, and then Texas! How did that inform your work?
C: Well, I guess growing up there informed who I am as a person, and so, by the transitive property, my music, as well. Right?
S: Oh, man, for sure!
This went on for something like an hour. The one saving grace of the interview portion of the night, which I didn’t even realize until later when reviewing lyrics, was when Clark deliberately seemed to troll Santelli and the rest of us by explaining that “Huey Newton” was about an Ambien-induced encounter with the deceased Black Panther founder, during which she learned that the two of them “really got each other, maaannnn.” In retrospect, this was even funnier than it was at the time (Check the lyrics, maaannnn). The Q&A was far more amusing, with the guy who’d been in line since 9 AM asking about some rare bootlegs Clark made at 20, and then spazzy dude who’d seen her in San Diego the night before and was seeing her the night after at the Wiltern geeking the fuck out about her guitar’s fuzz tone (It’s really complicated, guys). Then there was the dude asking, “So, uh, you’re a hard worker, obviously, but, uh, do you, uh, date ever? Cause, uh, I’m free later, ya know.” Poised as always, Clark staved the question off admirably, with “Yeah, I work hard but, I mean, I’m human.”
She then proceeded to demonstrate just how beyond human she can actually seem with a fullband set culled entirely from the new record. The weird corporate seminar oriented auditorium made for an odd venue, but it certainly aided the acoustics. And Clark’s shredding deserves it. I’ve seen her in three previous iterations, all very different from this one. Once, after the release of her first record Marry Me, she played solo opening for The National, and was transfixing. Next, with a large band at Sasquatch!, supporting Actor, again transfixing. The third time was at the Greek Bowl, with David Byrne in support of their collaborative record Love This Giant, which was also pretty transfixing, even from the cheap seats. This time around she was just as transfixing in close quarters, but in a whole different way. Clark’s onstage demeanor for this tour is entirely cold and affectless — she had the choreographer of the Love This Giant tour work out her dance moves, which are robotic and somewhat disturbing, but quite familiar to anyone who’s watched her recent TV performances or who caught LTG. The choreography is fun, with some very entertaining hand gestures, but unfortunately it keeps her from doing her signature duck walk. Her band is made up of consummate professionals, whose workmanlike efforts pay off on compositions this complex. But it’s not the rigidity of the dancing or the band that make the show here, it’s the freakishness of Clark’s guitar playing. This woman is a masterclass virtuoso of the instrument, and her extended solos at the end of “Rattlesnake” and “Every Tear Disappears” were welldeserved and completely necessary. She treats her instrument like an animal or something, the sounds she produces are outside of anything else ever. The full band thrash sesh for the second half of “Huey Newton” was incredible, and “Bring Me Your Loves” made an excellent closer, with Clark’s dramatic vocals on the chorus being doubled beneath her at least two octaves down.
The set was not as long as I’d have liked, but it did cover most of the new record, if nothing else. I would have really loved some Strange Mercy material (my favorite of her albums, I’ve only seen a few of it’s songs performed live as part of LTG), but this was a pretty sweet deal for what could have been a shit promo event. If only she’d been given half of Santelli’s interview time to shred the fuck out, we’d have had ourselves a truly great time.