The "Fear the Future" tour came to New Orleans and provoked on a number of levels.
From the start, St. Vincent made it clear that her show was a show Monday night. A stage hand pulled back the curtain on the Civic just enough to reveal St. Vincent—Annie Clark—standing alone stage left, where she stood still at a microphone and sang “Marry Me,” backed by a pre-recorded café accordion. Clark cut a severe figure in a pink vinyl dress and pink vinyl thigh-high boots with her black hair slicked back. The theatricality of that look and opening called into question what we see and hear at concert.
It’s easy to assume at a concert that the singer is baring his or her soul, and that the performance represents a moment of direct communication between the artist and the audience. All of St. Vincent’s contrivances—including microphones set up around the stage, the monitor-free presentation, the rear-screen projections, and her own look—emphasized the show’s constructed artifice. She made it clear that if the show wasn’t exactly performance art, it was certainly a performance of art, so much so that it feels precarious to even use Clark’s name in this review. Monday night, St. Vincent seemed like a Bowie character—an extension and exaggeration of Clark, but not exactly her. Or maybe it was exactly her. The carefully constructed performance made it hard to know.
The boldness of that approach and Clark’s commitment to it made the show exciting, and the absence of a band onstage only made it more dramatic as she went through hit alone without an onstage foil or supporting cast. The show came with the trade-offs that accompany adopting a character as it gave her license and cover. She, like Ziggy Stardust or the Thin White Duke or P.J. Harvey circa To Bring You My Love, could say what she wanted in the guise of the character, but that guise lowers the emotional stakes since it’s the construct, not Clark, speaking. Or, again, maybe it wasn’t. Who can be sure?
It was clear looking around the Civic that not everybody wrestled with that tension. Those who heard themselves and their values in her openness, acceptance and willingness to address gender politics in her songs heard the show as direct and uncomplicated, as if she were playing in a black jeans and T-shirt accompanied by a conventional band live onstage. In fact, the show was successful specifically because it worked both ways—as a chance for people to hear and collectively share the experience of songs they love, and as a theatrical proposition that played with the concept of a concert.
The show was split two halves divided by an intermission. The first featured songs from her career so far, and the second was her most recent album, Masseduction, in its entirety. Clark performed both sets alone onstage with only her guitar; the rest of the music was prerecorded, and many of her older songs were toughened up and made more explicitly electric, closer to the musical vocabulary of 2015’s St. Vincent. That, combined with her slow reveal of her stage and the time she spent at the back of it, meant the sold-out audience didn’t fully come to life until the fifth song, “Cruel.”
The new versions freshened up some songs in interesting ways, though. The accordion made the proposal in “Marry Me” sound self-effacingly comic. The muscled-up, early PJ Harvey-like take on “Cheerleader” made it very clear that Clark really, really, really didn’t want to be anybody’s cheerleader. The more wiry tone unified the sounds of her songs across albums, but it also slammed through some of the intricacies of verses. Because of that, most of the songs in the first set relied on their choruses to catch, which didn’t always happen. “Strange Mercy” got by me entirely, and “Birth in Reverse” worked as an expression of energy and excitement more than as a song. She announced, “It’s crazy right now, but there’s always something to dance about,” then launched into a version of “Digital Witness” for people whose least favorite part of EDM is the D part.
The Chicago Tribune’s Greg Kot reviewed the Chicago stop on the tour, writing, “Whereas once St. Vincent’s music had kept her personal turmoil at arm’s length, ‘Masseduction’ confronts it. From the opening ‘Hang On Me,’ it was clear that the singer was still processing a wrenching relationship or series of relationships.” I’d argue the album does that, but because she framed the show as a performance, assertions about any relationship between the concert and Annie Clark’s real life seem dodgy, and the staging for the Masseduction portion of the show underscored that.
Clark stood on a small platform positioned in the center of the stage with rear projection screens that featured photos and video of St. Vincent that owed debts to Helmut Newton and David Bowie. They featured her in latex tops and leather boots in incongruous settings, or looking blankly aside as if posing for the cover art for ChangesOneSt.Vincent. In that context, it’s hard not to wonder if emotional revelations are really revelations, and if she’s feeling or “feeling.” Still, for me the last half-hour made the distinction less of a difference as the performed narrative became undeniable. For others, that may have come sooner. The pop-ness of “New York” drew the audience in, as did a rare, self-effacing moment in the show when Clark started to tell a story and realized she had no idea how to pronounce “Tchoupitoulas” and referred to the “street with a T.” After that, Clark attacked her solo in “Fear the Future” with such ferocity that her hair started to come down—a moment that read as profoundly passionate in so controlled a show. “Dancing with a Ghost” presented a struggle with melancholy that she was clearly losing. Throughout the night, Clark broke off gnarly tangles of distortion when she took guitar solos, but at the end of “Dancing with a Ghost,” the elegant simplicity of her solo made the sense of loss profound. As “Smoking Section” came to a close, she sang, “It’s not the end” as if saying the words would make it so, all the time knowing that it wouldn’t. The relationship in question is over and with that, so was the show.
The concept for the night clearly evolved from the album’s title, which expands an intimate moment—a seduction—beyond an intimate audience. Taking fetishwear out of the bedroom and on to the stage played a similar game in a show that made the the nature of audience/artist relationship a subject to think more about. Ironically, the moments that spoke in the most conventionally human voice came through her guitar. Clark’s unruly solos burst with an immediacy that was at odds with the otherwise mannered performance. Of course, it’s possible that even those moments of release were planned, and that they too were part of the character-building exercise—and that’s the challenge St. Vincent’s show posed. What, if any of it, represented something “real”? Maybe none of it. I suspect there are a lot of people who’d say all of it, and I’d never say they’re wrong. The accomplishment with which she pulled off the show made the night exciting and satisfying either way.