Bowery Ballroom’s aggressive bouncers could learn a thing or two from Annie Clark. The pale, wispy-haired performer, better known as St. Vincent, manages to grasp an audience’s attention without ever raising her voice or marauding in condescending fashion. We get “Thank you” instead of “Open up that backpack, that better not fucking be alcohol.” With the exception of a vicious head shake or foot slam, she maintains the steady swagger of a seasoned professional in a black baby doll dress: engaging audiences through incredible musicianship, not gaudy stage antics. Few female guitarists have the versatility and virtuosity of Clark, who is rivaled only by Kaki King; she seamlessly picks her way from bossa nova to Frank Zappa’s sampled musique concrète.
What began with standard tuning on Friday’s sleety night, albeit with violinist Daniel Hart modulating pitch with the aid of a whammy pedal, wondrously introduced the percussive plucking of “Now, Now,” a melodically hyperactive interpretation of a mother’s condemnation: “You don’t mean that / say you’re sorry.” Transitioning from meandering interplay between Hart’s violin and Clark’s guitar, the song spiraled into distorted oblivion accented by sporadic strobe lights, soaring to harmonics on overdrive. No matter the intensity of the music, Clark never screamed into her microphone, only altering her sensuous vocals through the use of an antiquing cardioid mic.
While the dexterity of St. Vincent’s backing band provides for some poignant arrangements, it’s Clark’s wide-eyed earnestness that draws you in and ultimately embodies St. Vincent. Her voice carries the raspy airiness of Billie Holiday and the jagged-edged pop sensitivity of Fiona Apple, adding porcelain fragility to a performance that keeps you enthralled for fear of the musician’s passivity becoming unhinged.
But Clark, most famous for her work with Sufjan Stevens and The Polyphonic Spree, decides not to rely solely on her startling face and soothing voice, adding a layer of sophistication to her performance. Whereas the lead singer of the evening’s second opener, Foreign Born, treated his Martin like an unused and unplugged prop, Clark viciously attacked her vintage red Silvertone, ripping violent echappée riffs in “My Lips Are Red,” before gleeful finger work on the jazz ballad “What Me Worry.” Listeners could embrace the sensitivity of Clark’s playing each time she smoothly glided her graceful fingers up the fret towards the neck. The scratchiness of her fingers on the guitar strings provided the warmth of an old phonograph, prompting the audience to halt head bobbing and succumb to a stagnant smile.
Since she has only released one album — 2007’s “Marry Me” — St. Vincent’s set lists are constrained by the limitations of a small amount of original material. To keep each concert spontaneous and fresh, she relates giddy embellished stories about taxidermy in Midwest Stop and Shops before she segues into unconventional covers — something like a solo interpretation of the Beatles’ “Dig a Pony.” These individual moments, completely volatile without any occlusion by her brilliant band, spark the most intriguing musicianship of her live show. Equipped with nothing more than a voice, a guitar and an electronic kick drum, Clark uses a firm jazz sensibility to intersperse clever arrhythmic vamping with a swift banging right foot, leaving just enough room for her delicate voice. Her compositions and arrangements do not overwhelm you with unnecessary layering of melodies or auxiliary instruments, but rather feel like a well-balanced meal that won’t leave you with superfluous bullshit.
Clark’s acute imperfections and gritted liberalism indicate a desire to be associated with her adoptive hometown of New York City, rather than her legitimate place of birth 1500 miles Southwest, in the land of “big.” On the album’s title track, her poetic aesthetic reveals a desire to find love as a child and a lonesome woman: “Marry me John, I’ll be so good to you.” Though visibly more comfortable center stage strapped-in with a guitar, Clark manages to desperately call for affection behind a keyboard smothered in long, sparkling confetti, with the hammered chords that begin the song.
The stage, lined with black and white circus tent curtains and obscure geometric objects, inspired sentiments of a trippy grand guignol, pulsating in “Black Waltzes” best suited for nightmarish clowns. Recurring images of ashes and dancing evoke a meditation on “Ring Around the Rosie” and establish a cohesive thread between Clark’s eclectic tastes by merging a wishful child with a cynical adult. Essentially, St. Vincent constantly balances adult psychoanalysis with a child’s naivete. Over a Latin Jazz vamp, with the calm sang-froid of Gilberto Gil, Clark ponders “Mary, dear, how you feel? Are you lost without your lamb? You know I think I understand.”
Yet, while her lyrics may convey a woman lost and confused, her comfortable awkwardness on Friday provided dynamic stage presence and audience admiration. Driven to add more than applause, enamored concert-goers shouted, “Marry me, Annie,” causing the singer’s pale face to rouge. If “John” decides against marriage, there will surely be a parade of eager bachelors in western shirts and skinny jeans bending on hopeful knees.