The Stations of St. Vincent

Last Monday night was the fourth time that I’ve seen indie rock band St. Vincent a.k.a. Annie Clark play a show in Omaha.

The first time was nearly five years ago at The Waiting Room. St. Vincent was just beginning to get a name for themselves releasing their debut album, Marry Me, after Clark had completed tours of duty as members of stellar indie rock choir The Polyphonic Spree and singer/songwriter Sufjan Stevens’ band. If I remember correctly, around 100 were there to see her band, consisting of a violinist, keyboardist and drummer, perform a short set of rather unfamiliar, though gorgeous, music. At the center of it was Clark’s electric guitar howling with a tone reminiscent of The White Stripes'' Jack White, ripping and tearing the room asunder.

I concluded a review of that show predicting that Clark was “going to be as big PJ Harvey. Maybe bigger.” Who is PJ Harvey? She's sort of the black queen of indie rock, a breakthrough U.K. artist and an acknowledged groundbreaker who attracks crowds in the thousands -- massive by indie rock standards. 

St. Vincent returned to Omaha two months later to open for The National at Slowdown, but this time it was just Clark alone with only her electric guitars, her duo microphones, and a cabinet of sampled beats and noises; and no, it wasn’t as stellar a performance as that previous show at The Waiting Room, but it was still pretty durn good, and at times, great.

It would be almost two years until Clark would return to Omaha, this time in support of her first release on “important” mid-sized indie label 4AD, called Actor. Instead of Slowdown’s big stage, Clark and a band that included a violin, bass, drums and a guy on woodwinds (flute, saxophone, clarinet), played Slowdown Jr., the bar’s smaller front room. The show wasn’t a sell out, but it was close, with a few hundred people mesmerized by St. Vincent’s dreamy, theatric and funky music.

Then came this past Monday night, again at Slowdown but this time on the big stage.

In some ways, Clark is both a traditionalist and a curiosity. Her career progression -- starting as a sideman, then striking out on her own, opening for larger bands before a breakthrough album and then onto a larger solo tour, was standard operating procedure for the indie rock game.  But lately that model has become abbreviated. Bands these days seem to only get one massive hit record (or at least "massive" for indie standards), one big-stage tour and then... the inevitable downfall. There rarely is a second act for indie bands. The iPod-in-shuffle-mode and the Internet have all but killed this generation's attention span. We live in an era of one-hit wonders, where what's hot today is passe tomorrow and forgotten next week. Somehow Clark has avoided all of that.

At 10:30 Monday night, she walked onto Slowdown’s big stage to a sea of upturned faces, a capacity crowd come to see the sexy conquering hero, clad in leather hot pants and black hose, sleeveless black shirt (thankfully no ink marred her ivory shoulders), her tiny frame propped tall on 4-inch high-heeled black shoes (not boots).

Around her neck, a black electric guitar.

Surrounded by white-hot strobe lights and a band consisting of two keyboard players (one playing a mini Moog) and an amazing percussionist, Clark become the female embodiment of Prince circa 1983 when the wunderkind could do no wrong, when he was at the height of his powers. Monday night I had a  feeling that I was seeing Clark at the height of her powers. Strong, ingenious, locked-in and groovy, lost in the music and the moment, she would lean forward and coo her sweet soprano all innocent before tip-toeing backwards while viciously, relentlessly torturing her guitar. Because first and foremost Clark is a guitarist, weirdly talented at pulling dark, fuzzy growls from her lacquered instrument.

I cannot tell you the names of the songs she sang, despite having all of her albums. Strike that, I do remember that she sang “Cruel,” from her last album, 2011’s Strange Mercy (4AD), her highest charting (peaking at No. 19 on Billboard) and arguably best record of her career. Oh, I recognized the songs, I just can’t tell you what they’re called, and these days it doesn’t really matter. There are no “radio hits” in the indie world, and won’t be again.

Though her stage presence recalled Prince, her music had more in common with arch New Wave composers such as Brian Eno, Laurie Anderson and Talking Heads, while her voice was Joni and Aimee and Souxsie Sioux. But it was nothing compared to those hot-bitch guitar licks that could rattle your teeth with its staccato fists or pull you under the covers with waves of luscious, tonal phrasing.

The crowd, as they say, ate it up. And in the end, she ate them up, meeting them one-on-one first with a stage dive, followed by another stage dive and then a chaotic stroll within the melee, her head of black curls lost in the sea of sweaty bodies reaching out for a touch, her presence a moving mosh pit, before she crawled back on stage; exhausted, spent.

She returned for a two-song encore that peaked with another thick slab of guitar, before exiting stage right.

I left Slowdown thinking that, despite pulling off one of the best shows this year (and the best she's ever performed on an Omaha stage), my prediction never came true. Clark still isn't as big as PJ Harvey. At least not yet.  

Beyond Lazy-i is a weekly column by Reader senior contributing writer Tim McMahan focused on arts, culture, society and the media. Email Tim at tim.mcmahan@gmail.com.

posted at 07:43 am
on Tuesday, May 15th, 2012

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