We heard it here first. St. Vincent is 80% Irish. She tells us this in a rare glimpse into a personal moment, the stage persona briefly dropped to let the audience in. So, here we all are in the middle of a meticulously constructed piece of musical theatre, and Annie Clark is talking about the first two Irish potato famines. Not even the Great Famine – the rockstar famine – but the first two. “It was always family lore that we were Irish” she smiles, and cynicism be damned, it’s actually believable when she claims Irish crowds are her favourite. The St. Vincent that greets The Olympia on this miserable night in Dublin is a warmer character than her previous live shows have exhibited, a much more accessible and engaging performer and – she leaves no trace of doubt once this show has run its course – a formidable talent.
Previous St. Vincent shows – full band shows – were choreographed and scripted to within an inch of their lives; cold and distant, the mechanisms of the onstage interplay taking precedence over the music. For the MASSEDUCTION tour Clark has pared things back, in personnel at least. She’s left the band behind, opting instead for a backing track. There have been rumblings from the UK reviews of her latest run of shows that this was a divisive manoeuvre, but their absence barely registers once Clark steps out from the wings into the spotlight.
‘Marry Me’ and ‘Now, Now’ kick things off, the stage curtain slowly opening a bit more as each song progresses. So far, so minimalist, but the effect is deliberate. It places the focus on Clark as a guitarist, something we may have lost sight of amidst all the theatricality and collaboration, and in the clinical execution of her previous stage show. This time around, there’s no back-up; no elaborate choreography or stilted between-song faux-stream-of-consciousness babbling. Tonight, above all else, is a reminder that St. Vincent is one of the finest contemporary guitarists out there, tearing it up on her multitude of custom-designed machines.
With that slick fringe cast down her face and the guitar shredding on ‘Actor Out Of Work’, for a split second it’s almost as if Prince has taken possession as Clark stands in the triangular recess formed by the backdrop. The theatrics are much more subtle than before, a slow tease and reveal with Clark moving in a semicircle around stage with each song. The curtains behind her open to reveal a contorted face, its gaping mouth and vampire teeth framing her as she plays, while stage hands in boiler suits and balaclavas substitute one guitar for another. Attention to detail is everything, down to the rows of pink plectrums stuck in the mic stands.
Opening with the Clark-directed short film, The Birthday Party, tonight’s is a bipartite show, the first half taking a chronological run through a selection from her albums to date and the second presenting the new record in its entirety. As MASSEDUCTION rolls out, the large screen behind becomes just as much of a focus as the performer. Standalone imagery has taken over from choreography – voyeuristic snapshots, surrealism and pop-art, tipping a nod to everyone from Altman to Almodóvar. In the context of Clark’s musical accompaniment, it’s incredibly effective. She exerts complete and careful control over the sensory onslaught – her movements around the stage; the slow reveals; the lighting and onscreen imagery. The directorial role spills into the stage show, every aspect of the mise en scène contributing to the complete Technicolor picture.
The starlight backdrop that suddenly lurches into a Star Wars lightspeed effect during the thundering guitar choruses of ‘Young Lover’ is dazzling, a final ‘wow’ moment, and as the set winds down there is again the sudden realisation that there is no band, only a backing track. St. Vincent is out on her own, a singular artist, and this latest piece of performance art is stunning. Clark’s command of the stage, and everything it projects, is something to experience. Justin McDaid