St. Vincent's one-woman art-rock show dazzles at the Palace

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St. Vincent at the Palace Theatre. Caroline Royce

Any rock show that offers a short film directed by the headliner instead of an opening act is clearly not going to be bound by predictable conventions.

St. Vincent’s theatrical, heavily stylized performance Saturday night at the sold-out Palace Theatre successfully blended high art with rock 'n' roll. After screening her film (The Birthday Party), St. Vincent (aka Annie Clark) was the lone performer for her 90-minute set, adding fierce guitar riffs over backing tracks of pulsating beats and atmospheric string arrangements. The only other people who appeared on stage were masked stagehands, dressed like ninjas and a dominatrix, handing St. Vincent different colored guitars to match the tone and mood of each track.

St. Vincent emerged on the corner of the stage, singing the tender opener "Marry Me," with her legs crossed casually—or as casually as one can while wearing a skin-tight pink latex corset and matching thigh high boots. The towering Twin Peaks-style curtains parted gradually from one song to the next, eventually revealing a stark stage with three microphone stands but no effects pedals, amps, or monitors in sight. The spotlight was solely on St. Vincent, expressing her grief, her passion, her pain, and her healing, like one long, emotional soliloquy.

The 40-minute opening salvo featured 10 songs from St. Vincent's back catalog. Clark first addressed the crowd warmly before a stellar version of "Actor Out of Work": "Hello St. Paul. Hello Minneapolis. I'm so glad to be here with you tonight." The tracks were personal and potent, but the start of the set was slightly remote and detached at times, a carefully orchestrated performance art piece, with each step, movement, and motion calculated and measured. It was like a lavish modern art installation in a gallery, one offering plenty of interest and intrigue, even if the soul and meaning of the work was slow to reveal itself.

Clark lay prostate on the stage while singing "Strange Mercy," like she’d just awoken from a nightmare, as though her song kept at bay the fanged vampire looming ominously on the curtain behind her. The set jolted to life with a dynamic version of "Digital Witness," with Clark commanding, "What's up, Minnesota? Let's go," as blood red lights lit the stage and the song's churning rhythm filled the room. "Do you want to go faster? I want to go faster!" Clark exclaimed before launching into "Birth in Reverse." Her discordant guitar solo deconstructed the tune as the curtains closed dramatically in front of her, signaling the end of the night's first act.

When the curtains parted for Act Two, an enormous image of St. Vincent appeared on a neon- drenched screen, reinforcing the fact that this show was all her and her alone. Clark was in need of nothing and no one. The night, the stage, and our attention all belonged to her, and we should never take our eyes off of her. And if our focus strayed momentarily to take in the videos on the screens at the back of the stage, those images mostly featured St. Vincent herself, watching over the proceedings approvingly like an indie rock Big Brother.

A series of arty, color-splashed films augmented the second set, during which St. Vincent performed her new album, Masseduction, in its entirety. The videos illuminated the empty fallacies of cosmetic surgery, self-promotion, photo shoots, and present day communication, as well as serving up a virulent rejection of the word no. All the while, St. Vincent (in a shimmering silver mini dress with matching booties) performed on a small, circular stage that resembled a cake topper for a doomed wedding called off at the last minute.

Clark remained there for much of the second set, only letting her guard down on a couple of occasions, which personalized the performance and added intimacy. "The last time I was here, an hour before I was to go on stage, my manager came up to me all flustered and said, 'Prince is coming to the show tonight,'" Clark said of her 2014 State Theatre performance. "Why would you tell me that before the show? Save that shit for after the show. So, all show long I was thinking, 'Oh my God, Prince is here!' So in honor of the Purple One, this goes out to all the boys, and all the girls, and all those who are in between." A fiery, disco-fueled version of "Sugarboy" followed, a loving tribute to Prince and the freedom, acceptance, and equality he stood for.

"Los Ageless" was a raucous highlight, complete with images of diamond-clad starlets wearing sunglasses over their plastic surgery bandages, while "Savior" featured a video that was half old-school Memorex advert and half Freud's fainting couch. Clark came down from her perch for a stirring version of "New York," connecting with the crowd while she sang at the edge of the stage. "This next song, I'd like to think you could substitute any city for the name of the song. But I'll be honest, St. Paul didn't quite fit in with the rhyme scheme," she joked.

A defiant and edgy take on "Fear the Future" made clear why she named her tour for the song. "The world is on fire, but I'm so glad we're in this room together," Clark said warmly as she brought the night to a close with tender, poignant versions of "Dancing with a Ghost," "Slow Disco," and "Smoking Section" that openly revealed where her heart and her mind are currently. The whole show was about stripping away the artifice we cloak ourselves in -- and revealing who we are while we still have the chance.

Click here to see photos of St. Vincent at the Palace

Setlist

Intro: The Birthday Party

Marry Me
Now, Now
The Strangers
Actor Out Of Work
Cruel
Cheerleader
Strange Mercy
Digital Witness
Rattlesnake
Birth In Reverse

Masseduction
Hang On Me
Pills
Masseduction
Sugarboy
Los Ageless
Happy Birthday, Johnny
Savior
New York
Fear the Future
Young Lover
Dancing With a Ghost
Slow Disco
Smoking Section


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