St. Vincent at State Theatre, 4/3/14
|Photo by Tony Nelson|
State Theatre, Minneapolis
Thursday, April 3, 2014
Robots have gradually taken over pop music for decades. Everyone from Neil Young to Cher to Future play around with Vocoder/Auto-Tune technology, and performers like Janelle Monae have built their acts around android dance moves and storylines. During the 2014 Grammys, Daft Punk won five trophies, but didn't say a word themselves -- because they are robots.
Technology has improved immeasurably in robot rock. For 40 dates in 41 days supporting a new self-titled album of synthesizer-meets-scorched earth guitar shredding, St. Vincent is a lifelike, programmed being. Her sets are heavily structured, and even the banter has been pre-selected. In other words, it's a lot like any ambitiously choreographed stage production. Annie Clark's descent into automatronics could be either a commentary on where musical performance art is heading, and how much is just a meditation on her rigid need for control.
During Thursday evening's performance at State Theatre, it was a good bit of both. On a stage filled with the hottest, blinding lights she could find, St. Vincent performed with a three-piece backing band of keyboardist/guitarist Toko Yasuda, drummer Matt Johnson, and synth player Daniel Mintseris. These three -- who have backed Clark together since 2011's Strange Mercy -- were eventually introduced as the humans onstage, and yet they conquered the material's jagged rhythms and discordant transitions with inhuman precision.
Vocally, these are the St. Vincent songs that the polite crowd had in their vinyl stash. With her pale countenance mostly blank, Clark sang with a fervor. More raw feeling came courtesy of her black dress with a bright-red, guts-like gash on the front. But an occasional smile crept in -- like Scarlett Johansson's inviting voice in the recent artificial intelligence flick Her -- as she learned what the paid clients required. She even dropped a Prince reference into her scripted dialogue to elicit the appropriate cheers.
On the synth-meets-horns stomp that could've ended up on her 2012 collaboration with David Byrne, Love This Giant, "Digital Witness," an expressive "YA?" in between bars felt like the human in her trying to break out. "Bodies, can't you see what everybody wants from you?" she sang during a bass-drop heavy version of Strange Mercy rocker "Cruel." Societal commentaries such as this within her catalog came to the forefront through her anti-physical recreations of the songs.
|Photo by Tony Nelson|
But then, of course, there was the unprogrammable guitar portion. While the rest of the body of St. Vincent shuffled her feet in miniscule steps or rhythmically bowed like a drinking bird, her fingers were mischievous all over her electric guitar's fingerboard. Fusillades of screeching, squalling whammy bar bombs exploded throughout the night. The Kraftwerk-y whirring of "Every Tear Disappears" was one of many successes of a struggle to overcome her self-imposed constraints. Clark ripped the song's circuitry apart with her solo, and kept her momentum rising with wailing bits in "Surgeon" and a pissed-off "Cheerleader."
All the while, she stepped to the top of a pedestal in the back middle of the stage, and the piercing lights cast monstrous 50-foot shadows of her on the backdrop. But through 12 songs of the set, the crowd stayed comfortably seated. An occasional hoot or "I love you" rang out in the cavernous State, but the effect of an intentional disconnect was a less-than-interactive group. A robot doesn't care what we do, do they? The numbness in the room eventually had to be vanquished.