Monday, December 19th, 2011
St. Vincent and Cold Specks at The Phoenix in Toronto
Frank YangIn discussing the latest St. Vincent album Strange Mercy, I mentioned that Annie Clark’s greatest strength as a songwriter was her creative restlessness; a trait which has over the course of her relatively short career already taken her to more interesting places than some artists even conceive of visiting. If we turn our attention to her live show, that title of “most appropriate single adjective” would probably have to be “control”.
Just as she has a very specific idea of how her compositions should sound on record, she hits the road with a very specific idea of how they should be presented on stage, such that each time I’ve seen her its been not only with a different set of musicians, but a different configuration of instruments and sounds. Not that you need much more than Clark, her voice and her guitar to spellbind; that’s all she brought on her first visit back in February 2007 before her debut Marry Me was released and it was far more memorable than Midlake’s headlining set. Her last time through Toronto in August 2009, the more complex orchestration of Actor necessitated a multi-instrumentalist, multi-tasking five-piece St. Vincent. So who and what would they be for the leaner and more snarling Strange Mercy?
First, opening up were Cold Specks who had to make waves in Europe with her debut 7″ release before getting some attention back home; though Cold Specks is now based in London, Al Spx originally hails from the borough of Etobicoke. Performing seated as a two-piece with an accompanying guitarist/vocalist, Cold Specks tried to win over the packed, talkative room without a lot of success. Her meditative gospel-folk songs and their low-key deliver was designed more to haunt than command, and this wasn’t really the environment for that approach to succeed. Those of us up front were able to appreciate its subtleties and the way the weight of the material built slowly as the set progressed, but even from in close it was very gradual. Getting the opportunity to make her debut on a big stage like this may have been an impressive achievement, but Cold Specks is probably better suited to smaller rooms and more attentive audiences for now.
St. Vincent, on the other hand, has well and properly graduated to rooms of this size. Backed by a drummer manning a kit the size of which seemed physically impossible for an individual to manage and two keyboard/synth players, Annie Clark delivered a set that was configured for and leaned heavily on Strange Mercy – no horns or second effected vocal mic this time – only dipping slightly into Actor and not even acknowledging Marry Me until the finale of the show. The new material was delivered with gusto, Clark shifting from siren to shredder with the shake of her head and unleashing the squalling guitar breaks that so happily punctuate the record, unleashing chaos but in a totally precise manner (though having the strobe lights continually synched with the solos seemed a bit on the nose over the course of the night). The intensity of her performance was an interesting counterpoint to her poise between songs, where she would graciously acknowledge the shouts of, “we love you!” and “you’re so pretty!” from the audience while tuning or offer up some charming anecdote to make everyone fall in love with her just a little bit more.
This isn’t to suggest that it was an operation of military precision; “Dilettante” took three tries to get right, with Clark having to stop herself twice on account of forgetting the lyrics though she made the exercise of soliciting cues from the audience one of the most endearing moments of the night. It was with the late-set cover of The Pop Group’s “She Is Beyond Good & Evil” – rendered far more aggressively than any of her own material – that the show seemed to allow more anarchy to seep in. Shortly thereafter, Clark appeared to break the theremin during its solo on “Northern Lights” and though the encore opened with a lovely keyboard-vocal arrangement of “The Party”, it closed with a riff-heavy, almost metal-derived version of “Your Lips Are Red” which saw Clark turn an edge-of-stage guitar solo into an impromptu crowd surf – while sustaining both the soloing and her perfect posture – before getting back on stage and basically attacking her roadie with her guitar (in what I presume was a playful manner). It was a fantastic finale to an impressive show and showed that maybe the best thing about Annie Clark’s being in control is her ability to lose it.
Photos: St. Vincent, Cold Specks @ The Phoenix – December 15, 2011
MP3: St. Vincent – “Surgeon”
MP3: St. Vincent – “Actor Out Of Work”
MP3: St. Vincent – “The Strangers”
MP3: St. Vincent – “Now Now”
Stream: Cold Specks – “Holland”
Video: St. Vincent – “Cruel”
Video: St. Vincent – “Laughing With A Mouth Of Blood”
Video: St. Vincent – “Actor Out Of Work”
Video: St. Vincent – “Jesus Saves I Spend”
NYC Taper has got one of The National’s homecoming High Violet finale shows available to download, including the two new songs – “Rylan” and “I Need My Girl” – that the band has been premiering on this tour.
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Their visit in the Fall a casualty of the cancelled Vaccines tour, Tennis have made a date at The Horseshoe for February 29, just a couple weeks after their second album Young And Old is released on February 14.
Memphis country-punk stalwarts Lucero are back at Lee’s Palace on April 14. Their new album Women & Work will be out in the Spring, presumably in time to sell at these shows.
Stream: Sleigh Bells – “Born To Lose”