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Before the start of St. Vincent‘s show last night at the Rock & Roll Hotel, the front row politely filled up with a squad of shutterbugs. This indie paparazzi broke down into two camps: sheepish girls with slumped shoulders and super-serious boys. (Full disclosure: I was one of those super-serious boys. I recorded the video above.)
One boy wasn’t a boy at all. He was a grown man. And he wanted everyone to know he was just a little more pro than the rest. He had a resume of old images. He shared it, running down a list of bands whose souls he’s captured. He added—presumably filed under other specialties—”I also shot a lot of parties. Nightlife.” Then he mentioned that he had shot Coldplay.
This is what an indie-darling-of-the-moment must face. St. Vincent (real name Annie Clark) released her debut album, Marry Me, last year. Clark had done time in the Polyphonic Spree and Sufjan Stevens‘ band. It’s not a bad resume. But it’s still a huge leap from being just another robe among the Spree and just another ironic cheerleader in Stevens’ traveling folk-art pop circus to a singer with her own songs and a blogosphere willing to make her every utterance a viral affair. But Marry Me is an album that could only produce a devoted fan base. Clark’s songs swerve between the hushed confessional and the messy confessional. She’s a drama queen. But a lovely and loving drama queen. Among her songs’ many qualities, listeners have an excuse to use words like lush and cinematic and carnival crazytastic. She is all fretty dramatics. And when she’s not fretty dramatics she’s Tin Pan Alley or the Flaming Lips. There’s a lot going on, more than enough to inspire journal entries or comments on the official St. Vincent blog thanking her for just existing and playing their town.
Critics—me and included—like to think a band’s trajectory from total adoration to snarky backlash has shrunk. We like to blame blogs. When I saw all the photogs gearing up while St. Vincent was testing the monitors, I couldn’t help thinking that maybe this was gonna just be her one moment before the haters arrived in black cloaks clutching Powerbooks. At least I would have felt this enormous pressure.
As she started her set, I couldn’t help but notice just beyond the digital cameras, there were undergrads who looked up at the stage as if they were praying to her. They sang along. They clasped palms over the monitors. Their eyes flashed total belief in the blogosphere’s newest saint.
Clark may have noticed this vibe too. Or at least cultivated it. She mugged for the cameras with an eyebrow arch. She got in some good jokes—something about hitting the road in a caravan of Camaros and cranking Huey Lewis. She dressed her bandmates in suspenders and vests. Her band or her roadies carefully placed little wooden cutouts of trees all around the stage. She brought out a vase of bright flowers and placed it beside her many guitar pedals. “Welcome to the Psychedelic Forest,” she declared mid-set. “So trip out on that.”
Dude, the packed crowd tripped hard. Live, the songs’ over-the-topness felt just right. You had to be a cold motherfucker to not be awed by the effort. Clark shifted between two microphones—one specifically used for a sort of ’20s vocal effect—and constantly stomped, tapped, or adjusted the knobs on her 16 to 57 pedals using only her toes. She could coax amazing things out of her lipstick-red guitar: middle eastern drones, crazy metal riffs, and super sweet finger picking. Her band matched her stamina and dexterity; her bassist doubled on clarinet and her violinist took over on keyboards. It all rarely sounded like too much effort.
The songs held the room even when they began with just a chorus of tiny bells or calmed down to a whisper. Last year, Clark logged 225 days on the road. She knows which buttons to push.
About an hour in, Clark stripped it all away and covered “Dig a Pony” by herself. Her take on the Beatles song has already become a blog staple. I can see why. She slowed the song down, hushed it up, and just fucked with it the way a great jazz singer dismantles a standard.
It was the one moment where I could put my camera down, forget about all those pedals, and all those bloggers and just watch her do her thing. I looked around and noticed all the shutterbugs. They had put their cameras away, too. They wanted to just take in the moment.