Last Thursday night, St. Vincent returned to New Orleans for a sold-out show at the House of Blues, bringing a rock 'n roll sensibility to pop conventions.

st. vincent photo by patrick ainsworth
By Patrick Ainsworth

If you were to judge on appearances alone, you might not guess that Annie Clark is first and foremost a rock musician. Based on her high-fashion stage attire (a minidress featuring bleeding eyes and mouths fashioned out of sequins, and a bob dyed grey), you might expect her scripted monologues, staged dancing, and adroit cultural references. You might, however, be surprised by her ability to tear into a guitar riff, incite a mosh pit, and wipe blood on her face. On Thursday night, she played a sold-out show at the House of Blues and made the firm assertion that though she has broader art-pop ambitions, she's willing to take some risks.

After eight months of touring this album, St. Vincent has tightened her performance to a thrilling, well-oiled powerhouse. Back in February, I attended the tour's second date and it  had little of the wild spark and cohesion of Thursday night's gig. Here, she was completely comfortable in the set's performative aspects and had a formidable stage presence. She didn't shy away from squaring her shoulders and staring straight at the audience, a playful smirk on her face. 

To begin the night, St. Vincent skittered and shuffled onto the stage with robot-jointed choreography before launching into "Rattlesnake." The song chronicles a trip she took into the Texas wilderness. Alone for miles, she decided to strip and walk in the desert naked, a blissful moment of transcendental communion until she was confronted by a rattlesnake. The song set the tone for the rest of the evening--a performance that jolted the everyday towards the experience of the unexpected. 

St. Vincent photo by Patrick AinsworthSt. Vincent, by Patrick Ainsworth

A St. Vincent performance is a study in extremes. On one hand, there is no mistake that Clark is completely in control. Every aspect of the performance is planned including the monologues between songs that enumerated her intuitions about her audience (One line she has repeated on this tour: "When you were young, you made a hot air balloon out of bedsheets, thinking you could fly, but you couldn't. But you never gave up hope"). She hit all the precise stage cues of her minimalist choreography. She didn't slur her solos. She made several remarks about gender politics and sexual identity, a theme that appears often on her most recent album.

On the other hand, her performance highlighted how unpredictable she can be. She writhed on the floor during "Krokodil", viciously spitting her lyrics. She languidly rolled her head backwards like a cat before snapping it back, wide-eyed. For "Your Lips are Red" in the encore, she precariously monkey-climbed up a speaker and swung on pipes under the balcony, then was hoisted up by an audience member. She walked the outer ledge along the banister's length, stealing beers and leaning in to talk to fans--in heels, no less. Her band kept playing, but they (and her tour manager) kept watching with wariness and awe. I heard someone near me mutter, horrified, "She's going to fall. Oh my god, I'm about to watch St. Vincent die," but she managed to injure only her knee in the process.

For all her aesthetic performing, St. Vincent's stage was pretty bare. The only fixture was a large pink pyramid, which she stood atop to perform a few songs. Despite that touch, the set was surprisingly intimate. The setlist focused on her most recent work, but she still performed some older songs, including a stripped down, solo version of "Strange Mercy." "I Prefer Your Love" early in the night provided some unexpected stillness. 

In the time since St. Vincent's 2011 performance in New Orleans played to a lukewarm Tipitina's crowd, her profile has skyrocketed. She has since collaborated with David Byrne, won the Smithsonian's American Ingenuity Award, worked as guest bandleader for Late Night with Seth Meyers, played SNL, and signed to a major label. That's a pretty big presence for someone who's billed her most recent album as "a party record you can play at a funeral."  On a large scale, it's particularly polarizing

St. Vincent photo by Patrick AinsworthBy Patrick Ainsworth

It's clear that St. Vincent is looking to stretch the conventions of pop music, but she's doing it with all the swagger of rock 'n' roll. She rips into guitar solos and has gained the stamp approval of greats, including Nirvana. In a pop landscape that can stress finding community in conformity, her music is filled with a sense of alienation. She seems to be searching for something darker, grittier, and more tangible. She's interested in her songs' mechanics of everyday experience, but dissects it for raw emotion.

St. Vincent's performance demonstrated that while she's a technically talented performer, she distinguishes herself by putting some real skin in the game. She left the stage with her outfit still immaculate, a pleased, serene smile on her face, and blood on her cheeks.