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From Boston Calling 2018: St. Vincent Dazzles and Disturbs

Annie Clark (stage name: St. Vincent) has enough talent, if she wanted, to walk onstage with no costume, lights, or band—just her voice and a guitar—and bring down the house. But Clark did not do this at Boston Calling. Instead, she entered parallel to the audience, eyes straight ahead, her orange, over-the-knee boots stepping in time with the blown-up, fast-forward version of herself projected on the screen behind her. Two of her band members donned blonde wigs and mesh face masks. Turning her back on the massive crowd, some of whom who had arrived over an hour in advance of her set, she raised both arms in the air and clasped her wrist before turning around and jumping into the opening lines of “Sugarboy.” Clark impressed with her talent, but astounded with the addition of her unmatched theatricality.

An array of avant-garde looped and choppy videos of Clark in various guises comprised the most attention-grabbing of the set’s eccentricities. A towering image of Clark with gaunt eye makeup and bruised lips, windblown blue hair waving back and forth, accompanied the thumping beat and guitar riffs of “Los Ageless.” It’s appropriate imagery for Clark’s twisted, escapist take on the SoCal city, illustrating the lines, “In Los Ageless, the winter never comes / In Los Ageless, the mothers milk their young / But I can keep running.” Another image of this bruised, blue-wigged Clark backed up the song “Cheerleader,” this time holding a telephone to her ear—a praying mantis balanced precariously on her finger—while blue liquid pours out of her mouth. While not explicit, one could construe from the lines “But I-I-I-I-I don't wanna be your cheerleader no more” and “I’ve seen America / With no clothes on” that Clark has experienced more blind worship than she can stomach.

The same showmanship of the videos translated to Clark’s choreography. She took on a robotic tone for the chorus of “Pills,” shuffling her feet around the stage while mechanically strumming her guitar and cycling through elastic frowns, pouts, and smiles, each shift its own minute, medication-induced mood swing. Just after a head-banging guitar solo closed out the track “Masseduction,” a face-masked man appeared onstage to orchestrate what was expected to be a simple guitar change but became a visual spectacle. The man circled Clark with the guitar as she sang “Huey Newton,” pausing briefly to ominously stretch the strap from the guitar behind her before he placed the instrument in her arms and positioned her hands on the strings. Only then did the artist-turned-wind-up-doll begin to play.

For all her glorious theatrics, the setlist put all the emphasis on Clark’s custom, Ernie Ball Music Man electric guitar(s). Different even from the show she performed at the House of Blues Boston on her Fear The Future Tour this November, Clark brought to the festival a near-full performance of her 2017 album “MASSEDUCTION” with added guitar riffs and solos, as well as tricked-out versions of older songs like “Huey Newton,” “Year of the Tiger,” and “Marrow.” The audience fell into a frenzy over an amplified rendition of the already guitar-heavy chorus of “Digital Witness,” chanting along to every word of the futuristic hit. Whether emphatically plucking the melody or shredding long solos, each manipulation of Clark’s guitar was met with awe and applause. If it wasn’t for the choreographed separation and frequent guitar changes, it would have been hard to distinguish the instrument from the rest of her body.

Watching St. Vincent live is akin to spotting a shooting star. She is five solo albums into her career, still evolving, and ever on the rise. She returned to “MASSEDUCTION” to play “Young Lover,” hitting a series of sustained, astronomical high notes unlike anything she’d performed thus far. In this piece she proved that, just as with her instrumentalism and showmanship, her vocal prowess can and will defy any expectation anyone dares to place on it. “This is the gay version of Slow Disco,” she said coyly as she jumped into an electrified version of the melancholy tune. For a little over an hour, Clark transformed the Green Stage into an equal parts dazzling and disturbing display of music and art. She and the crowd crooned “Don’t it beat a slow dance to death?” over and over again until each individual construction of Clark’s imagination—the music, choreography, lights, and videos—came to a stop, returning the stage to its blank, original state.

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—Staff Writer Allison J. Scharmann can be reached at allison.scharmann@thecrimson.com.

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