St. Vincent’s Annie Clark demands your attention and holds it, obstinately. In performance, her unflappable commitment to character, music, and artistic vision is all-consuming and totally mesmerizing. Before she takes the stage, a monotone, robotic voice beams down from giant speakers, instructing the audience to resist the urge to digitally record the experience. “I want all of your mind,” she sings.
I’d suggest putting your phones down and giving her what she asks.
On Sunday night at the AT&T Performing Arts Center’s Winspear Opera House, St. Vincent and members of the Dallas Symphony Orchestra performed for an eager, sell-out crowd. Presented as part of the orchestra’s inaugural SOLUNA festival, this was a one-off concert featuring a startlingly effective collaborative effort, a unique gift for hometown fans (Clark grew up in Dallas).
Clark opened the concert with “Birth In Reverse,” “Regret,” and “Rattlesnake,” three of the strongest tracks on her most recent, self-titled album, St. Vincent. These are tight, concise songs and her performance was just that. Backed only by a three-piece band, the efficient, punchy rhythms and lyrics were super-charged. Clark’s robotic, doll-like “dance” moves were equally as succinct. There were no extraneous movements and no superfluous notes. Even the hand-off of a guitar to a stage hand was a deliberate, artistic act.
This level of meticulous control made it all the more effective when Clark stepped away from the mic and let loose on her guitar. She used heavy tremolo and distortion, but never at the expense of melody. Clark is as much an instrumentalist as she is a vocalist, and Sunday night her guitar solos were as expressive and musically compelling as her vocal ones.
For “Prince Johnny,” Clark mounted the minimalist three-tiered platform in the center of the stage where, once again, she utilized careful precision as a vehicle for maximum dramatic effect. “I want to mean more than I mean to you,” she sings bluntly before praying to “all” to make her “a real girl.” At the end of her song-prayer, her small frame collapsed and she began slowly, beautifully slinking down the platform. At the same time a black curtain behind her rose and a small, ghost-like orchestra was revealed.
A conductor, strings, woodwinds, brass, percussion, and harpist took over from there. Dressed in white painter’s jumpsuits, they performed “Proven Badlands,” a piece Clark herself composed for the chamber group YMusic. Re-orchestrated for a larger ensemble, “Badlands” introduced the amplified orchestra seamlessly.
Clark returned to the stage for “Cheerleader” (from 2011’s Strange Mercy), the first of a half-dozen songs performed with the orchestra. Of course, it’s nothing new for a pop star to collaborate with an orchestra, but this performance was more fully integrated than any I’ve seen before. Beck’s father, David Campbell, a formidable film and pop composer/arranger, created the orchestration for this concert. The balances were a bit off at times, with St. Vincent’s band too loud for both orchestra and singer, but visually and musically there was always equilibrium. Bows bounced to the beat against strings, trumpets and trombones blurted out catchy riffs, and the harp and marimba provided interesting textural range.
The DSO’s assistant conductor Karina Canellakis was a fearless, enthusiastic leader, and the ensemble resisted the urge to stay in one place, instead creating its own visual interest with some minimal choreography and constantly changing staging. For the encore, three violinists circled a prostrate Clark, lying on a gurney covered with sheet music. Her crystalline voice floated from the dark as she sang a haunting, slow version of “The Party.” As each violinist took a turn serenading her with a beautiful melody, the tiny, black-clad powerhouse of a performer was revived.
Perhaps the biggest hit of the night was “Digital Witness,” an instantly likeable song from St. Vincent that uses hypnotic, dance-inducing rhythms to simultaneously bemoan and praise society’s addiction to social media and technology. “What’s the point of even sleeping,” she asks, “if I can’t show it, if you can’t see me?” She might as well be asking, What’s the point of going to a concert, if I can’t tweet it, if you can’t ‘gram it?
Here the juxtaposition of the orchestra and the futuristic alien-like world of St. Vincent was at its best. We live in a world where violinists are members of rock bands and orchestras have Instagram accounts, where pop stars ask you not to post photos of their show, and where, at least for one night, we all agreed to ditch our phones and bask in the glow of a fully integrated, fully committed performance. No need for pictures when you’ve got a memory.
Go ahead and give Annie Clark your minds, eyes, ears, and souls. They’re in good hands.