St Vincent @ Shepherds Bush Empire

by Maggie Henebury

AFTER three albums of expertly crafted solo work released to commercial and critical acclaim, not to mention an impressive resumé as a member of The Polyphonic Spree and Sufjan Stevens’ touring band, the other-worldly St Vincent (real name Annie Clark) should need no introduction. To describe her as a gifted multi-instrumentalist and songwriter would be insufficient – Annie possesses an ethereal quality that in turn allows her to possess us, all the while appearing innocently unaware of the devastating power she holds.

A Persian rug is laid out neatly on the stage at the Shepherd’s Bush Empire in London, signalling Annie’s imminent appearance. From my seat way up on the level two balcony I have a clear view, but long for closer proximity once she takes the stage and seductively sings: “I spent the summer on my back,” the opening line of Surgeon, from her most recent album Strange Mercy (2011). It’s a real pleasure watching her perform, not least because of her undeniably lovely physical form (I defy you to look into her eyes and not go weak at the knees), but also for her incredible musical skill.

As she runs through almost the whole of Strange Mercy (Hysterical Strength being the only exclusion) and a generous handful of songs from Actor, her hands run up and down the fretboard producing sounds you might have otherwise thought were crafted with computer software, controlling the pedalboard at her feet with effortless taps, supported along the way by her engaging and powerful backing band. She makes it look so easy.

Before giving us a dazzling cover of The Pop Group’s She Is Beyond Good And Evil, she describes her meeting with their frontman Mark Stewart, who presented her with a dish scrubber bearing the likeness of Sid Vicious. “It was called Sid Dishious,” she said. “And he said, ‘man…this is what’s become of punk.’” But it’s clear the spirit of punk very much resides in Annie as she leaps around wildly, shredding her guitar with animalistic ferocity.

When she returns for her encore, it’s clear that many of us in the audience are waiting excitedly for a track from Marry Me, St. Vincent’s first album released back in 2007. She doesn’t disappoint – after one more Actor tune (The Party), the stage goes black, and after a dark and stormy build-up, launches into a thunderous rendition of Your Lips Are Red to much cheering.

While she shreds the hell out of an interlude, she approaches the edge of the stage and lets herself fall into the crowd, prompting a great surging wave (even the balcony dwellers looked ready to leap in and get closer to her), and is swept along by a sea of adoring arms, her right arm still attacking the strings. As she is lifted back to the stage she tosses her guitar to the floor, and it honestly doesn’t reek of contrived, rock-star arrogance. It’s a genuine explosion of passion from a divine artist, who finally runs from the stage like a gleefully rebellious child amidst rapturous applause. It was bloody spectacular.

This piece first appeared at Heavy Gretel.

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