St. Vincent is without doubt one of the artists of 2014. She has been everywhere and done everything (Letterman, Portlandia, Jools Holland, Glastonbury, every summer festival you care to mention), clocking up what must amount to millions of air and road miles on a three-figure-date world tour. Her eponymous album (her fourth) has figured in the top ten albums of the year in almost every magazine and music site’s list (today, for example, NME name it album of the year). She is interesting, creative, articulate, witty, beautiful, gracious, humble — the anti-Gaga, if you like — sings like a demented angel and plays a mean guitar; the meanest guitar this author has ever witnessed. Last year was the year of her much-hailed collaboration with ex-Talking Heads’ David Byrne and those of us keeping an eye on her wondered what would be next. The answer: onwards and upwards!
When I read she was coming to Madrid, my credit card was out of my wallet before you could say Ticketmaster! That purchase was made six months ago and as I got deeper into her oeuvre my anticipation grew by increments, with all the inherent risks of disappointment this entailed. If one builds up one’s expectations before going to see a performer as hot as St. Vincent is at the moment aren’t the odds on that one is setting oneself up for a fall? I had been down that road before in the recent past: je t’accuse, the XX.
I tried to talk sense to myself. While the live performances of St. Vincent I’d seen on YouTube were extraordinary displays of musicianship, focus and control, wasn’t there something cold, robotic and automaton about them? Isn’t St. Vincent’s persona based on ironic distance, a meta standing-aside from or hovering over the messy wet biology of daily life? Isn’t she the closest thing we have to a musical mime, playing out abstract thoughts and feelings in song and dance? Isn’t the St. Vincent persona (her real name is Annie Clarke) too inhuman, to unreal to carry a successful blood ‘n’ guts live rock show for a couple of hours? In a nutshell, I had a creeping worry that St. Vincent would, while being note perfect and choreographed to the hilt, be sterile and mechanical in a live setting.
My worries were unfounded. I don’t know how she does it so late in the year and having put in so many gigs, but St. Vincent played to us Madrileños like her life depended on sending us away convinced she was the best artist we were likely to see in a long while. The intensity and passion she showed went beyond mere professionalism. There was a desperation to give us something unique and special — and not an iota of an impression that she was just passing through town, banging out a few tunes and collecting the moolah. From her seeming materialisation on stage, impish grin on garishly made-up face, backed by the electronic burps of “Rattlesnake”, to her manic-guitar-solo-and-crowd-surfing exit, the St. Vincent we saw in the Joy Eslava was not just human; she was superhuman. Yes, everything she played was note-perfect and the weird Bowie-esque dancing was impeccably timed and exactly the same as on Letterman, but it was made special and one-off by the charisma and warmth of Annie Clark and the very palpable sense of commitment she gave off of wanting to rock the roof off the place.
She looked into the audience, steely and implacable, challenging us to go along with her for the ride. She corralled and harnessed us with raised eyebrows and furiously fretted phrases on her guitar. Her sweet ‘n’ sour voice mesmerised, wooed and pulverised us. She was Madonna during her “Vogue” period, a warm and funny Siouxsie Sioux. A Kim Jon-un in the way she controlled everyone in the room: we didn’t just do what she wanted us to do, we thought what she wanted us to think. She set the tone and we obeyed.
As well as a lesson in how to work a room, we were treated to humour: knowing looks, widened eyes and frenzied, crazed dancing. We got virtuoso guitar playing: she swapped hands à la Jimi Hendrix at one stage, for God’s sake; she did the playing guitar on your back thing; she played while being carried by the crowd. And very surprisingly, there was in-between-song banter. It’s official: St. Vincent is the new Tom Waits! On two occasions she related lengthy (about five minutes, I would guess) anecdotes, which were kookily humourous and didactic in a black comedic way and showcased Annie’s store of Spanish vocabulary. She’s not just beautiful and talented but habla español también.
It’s hard to believe that the previous night St. Vincent might have performed to the same level in Barcelona and the night after Madrid she would be attempting the same feat in Oporto and then Lisbon. Who else can put on 150 plus shows like this in a year? She really is a machine — but in a good way.