Live music is pretty awesome, and mind-blowing live music is even better. Only my experiences with Radiohead and Modest Mouse can seriously compete with this show. Check it out.
I’m a few days removed and the ringing noise has finally left my ears. My legs are still sore from the standing in line before and at the show, and my brain is still completely liquid from the mesmerizing live experience of St. Vincent in Columbus, Ohio. For those not interested in reading this whole thing, just know: this was one of the best shows I’ve ever seen.
The evening started at the Newport Music Hall on a strong note from opener Shearwater. I had previously experienced them at the start of a Sharon Van Etten concert in February. At that point I had never heard of the band, but they nearly stole the show. Following that performance, I explored their catalog and discovered a deep, rewarding library of sound. While they were the “merely” warm-up entertainment again on Tuesday, they did not disappoint. Their blend of Sonic Youth and Talk Talk (with a touch of the grandiose a la U2 or Arcade Fire) filled the room and their exceptional musicianship drew me in closer. The crowd was, unfortunately, uninterested in Shearwater. It’s a shame because they unleashed a great, varied set designed to appeal to any fan of rock (piano songs like “The Snow Leopard,” big statement songs like “Animal Life,” and full-on rockers like “Immaculate“). Be sure to check out their new record Animal Joy, out right now on Sub Pop. It’s the source material for most of their current live set and is probably better musically than anything St. Vincent has done.
But then, a live show isn’t all about the music. You see, after Shearwater finished I stood aglow from their excellent performance… only to be completely blown away the instant Annie Clark attacked her guitar.
For the uninformed, St. Vincent is the stage name of Annie Clark. The album appeal of St. Vincent is in the baroque rock style, the reflective lyrics, the unique song structures, and the maniacal guitar work. The studio versions of songs sound carefully constructed with layers of guitar, strings, and reed instruments. I had heard whispers of the live versions of these tracks, but was skeptical and viewed this as an opportunity to see Shearwater again.
I’ll never make that mistake again. Live, St. Vincent (as a band) takes every song and mutates it into a focused, loud, bombastic, explosive wall of sound. They kicked things off with opener “Marrow,” and instantly showed their ferocious power. The album version of the song has a funky chorus with mechanical-sounding guitars that erupt from the quiet in a way that would make Pixies proud. Live? It blows up to devastating and amazing effect.
Highlights from last year’s Strange Mercy worked perfectly in the live setting. The fist-pumping refrain of “Cheerleader” brought deafening cheers from the crowd every time. The guitar breakdown at the end of “Surgeon” was completely overwhelming as Clark attacked her instrument with precision and total disregard for human life. It was thrilling to just watch her at work and even more rewarding to hear the outcome.
But all these songs were ultimately engaging because of Annie Clark’s stage presence. She was entirely possessed, and that’s a very good thing. Her movements (and quasi-neuroses) recalled those of David Byrne in “Once in a Lifetime” but were done during guitar work. Her ability to work the crowd and fall into a seemingly-hypnotic self-imposed guitar trance only served to pull even more attention to the stage.
While the whole show was a highlight, the two highest high points were a cover song and a new track. First, the cover song: “She is Beyond Good and Evil” is a track originally by the band The Pop Group. But St. Vincent takes the song, injects new layers of guitar, and pushes the speed to an intimidating level. It was pure rock and immensely satisfying. The new track was the recent single “Krokodil.” The song is good, but the live version features Annie Clark diving into the crowd and surfing while still signing the freaking song and never losing a word. It was crazy. The song itself is fantastic, but the physical and mental ability to perform like this is just nuts.
Otherworldly guitar playing, exceptional stage presence, and strong musical compositions? The crowd was completely blown away and more than a few people I passed on the way to the doors uttered a similar reaction: “Holy f%#& that was amazing!” Don’t miss out on the chance to see one of the best live acts in music right now. Shearwater was awesome, St. Vincent was that much better.