The cover of St. Vincent’s self-titled 2014 album displays the art-rock songstress seated on a regal light-pink chair. Her hair is dyed white with bits of purple, her blue and purple dress has a glossy sparkle, and, more tellingly, her eerily unfazed expression (arched eyebrows, straight-ahead gaze) suggests the possibility of extreme power. And extreme power is what St. Vincent delivers, on the new album and at her live shows. Performing at downtown Providence’s Lupo’s on Sunday, she delivered an astounding two-hour set that literally tore down the house (more on that later). Despite a few foibles, St. Vincent kept the audience in a state of musical bliss for the better part of two hours. No small feat.
Before experiencing indie-rock rapture, the audience endured Norwegian-born singer Jenny Hval’s opening set. Hval, who performed with two back-up singers and a synthesizer player, makes strange, uneasy experimental songs that stretch and meander onstage. Typical electronic arrangements and drawn-out lengths bogged down her music, making Hval not nearly as captivating or innovative she thinks she is. Still, there’s no doubting her weirdness. Backup singers dangled a banana over a video projection of Hval, who appeared to follow the dangling fruit. And during a forced but effective climactic moment, she pulled off a red wig to reveal her true cropped cut. On the positive side, she has a beautiful voice and dares to tackle feminist ideas in subversive ways. Similar to St. Vincent, she is an (more so, but less successfully) unconventional and adventurous female musician. Hopefully Hval will continue stitching together her sound to create a clearer, more cohesive whole.
Concertgoers commented on Hval’s set during the thirty minutes before St. Vincent took the stage. “I have no idea what was going on there”, said one. “She does have a beautiful voice, though” responded another. As stage managers pulled the curtains together, a wave of excited anticipation spread through the crowd. The audience got a tad impatient when nothing happened for the next thirty minutes, but then St. Vincent was spotted walking down the backstage staircase. There were cheers, silence from the stage, and finally an electrifying blast of guitar noise. The curtains were pulled back to reveal the stage. And there she was, guitar in hand, flanked by a drummer, a synth/bass player, and an electronics wizard. The band tore the opening number, the sly and bracing “Bring Me Your Loves”, which involved an extended guitar solo, escalating drums, and buzzy synths.
They continued with another track (the fantastic funk-rock-pop mashup “Digital Witness”) from St. Vincent’s latest, then played some hooky hits from 2011’s Strange Mercy. After the first two songs, St. Vincent gave a gracious shout-out to “the queers, the freaks, the misfits of Providence, Rhode Island”. Later, she told the audience “All of us here are connected by a few things” and proceeded with a sincere but awkward story explaining the things that supposedly binded these concertgoers together. Those things involved: a belief in flying that resulted in bandages; stealing Mars Bars; building things with cardboard and glitter. (I’m finding this already strange speech doesn’t translate well to a paraphrased blog-post). Basically, St. Vincent was trying to say everyone at the Lupo’s show was a steadfast, creative, and artsy human being. Heartfelt and poigant, sure, but also weird and longwinded, especially when she returned to this monologue later in the show. After a particularly impassioned run-off on how we are united by the celestial arts-and-crafts we made as kids, a nearby audience member quietly quipped “Uh, I never did any of that.”
But when St. Vincent picked up her guitar again, there was not a snide comment to be heard. Songs from her new album, a fusion of shimmeringly gorgeous pop melodies and nastily razor-edged bursts of zapping synths and fuzzy guitar, work terrifically onstage. As expected, some studio-recording intricacies get lost during the live show. But there a spark lit by St. Vincent’s guitar and vocals that spreads to the other musicians and their instruments, then transformed into a palpable and fiery energy and unfurled through the crowd; you don’t experience that alone, with headphones. Speaking of fiery energy…. As guitarist, St. Vincent is a six-string wizard of virtuosic power. Sound like hyperbole? Get a ticket. On a side note, her feedback-filled solos will make any misogynistic rock think twice.
The show proved that a female solo artist can rock way harder than five guys all playing guitar together in a band. Any guitar-wielding young girl could find feminist inspiration from St. Vincent’s music, but it’s equally important to note she’s not just a “woman who can rock”. She just can rock, and. does so harder than most other artists currently in their prime.
At the show, she performed almost all of her latest album, but the setlist also included six tracks from the even better Strange Mercy and a few more from her first two LPs. Not a single song was a stinker. Still, though St. Vincent’s albums range from string-based indie-pop to electronic ballads to raging rock-and-roll, some songs blurred their sounds together a bit when performed live. For all the praise I have piled on this show, St. Vincent still has a few rough edges to smooth out of her live show. There were moments when St. Vincent just didn’t know when to end on a high note; after a truly awesome solo, she played for another minute without attempting to top what had come before. And, as mentioned before, her mid-concert soliloquy could use some work.
Despite that, St. Vincent is a stunning stage star – amiable yet alien, gregarious but prone to freakish outbursts of guitar noise. Hearing (and watching) her wield her absolutely gorgeous voice and indomitable guitar skills live made her impeccable muscianship even more obvious than it is on her albums. She wore a sparkling black and silver dress and bright blue makeup. And, in a nod to the aforementioned album cover, she would often perform on a pink podium several steps high.
There were several moments during the show so powerful they gave me chills and put me into a state of music-geek nirvana. One was the booming guitar-based build-up of “Cheerleader”. Same goes for the freakish but danceable “Rattlesnake” and the rapid rocker “Birth in Reverse”, both from her new album.
It’s a testament to the show’s (mostly) consistent awesomeness that those moments didn’t equal the encore. After a quick step away from the stage, St. Vincent returned alone for a performance of “Strange Mercy”. On previous listens, the song hadn’t stood out as one of her best. Performed live, the haunting beauty of this exquisitely elegiac track shone through the way it hadn’t before. “Strange Mercy” is one way to end a concert: the reflective, downtempo fade-out. The second encore song, “Your Lips Are Red”, was the exact opposite: rambunctiously boisterous, with a noisy finality. This was the only song St. Vincent played from her 2007 debut, Marry Me, and it was fascinating to see how she transformed the bubbling anger heard on the recorded version of “Your Lips Are Red” into something more explosive and exciting. Not content (thankfully) to just play the song, St. Vincent shredded with an epic solo, crowdsurfed for a few seconds, then hopped on the back of a stage manager and tried to climb onto an unstable ledge. When she stepped on the platform, it almost crumbled underneath her weight. So, instead of continuing, she grabbed some cardboard from the ledge and threw it into the crowd. Ocassional collaboartor David Byrne may have sung about burning houses, but St. Vincent tore one down herself.
After the performance’s end, it became clear that St. Vincent is someone very much in control- as an artist, as a live performer, and a public figure. At Lupo’s, her every move seemed the result of both careful consideration and free-flowing spontaneity. And, with a solid fanbase but no commercial pressure, she can go anyhwere she wants next. Looking back, that album cover seems like a prescient telltale sign. St. Vincent is now musical royalty.