Note: The following was written by Roy Ghim and appeared in last week’s edition of 72 Hours. And … well, you all know Roy, right? Right. So enough with the explanations.
“I can’t turn off what turns me on.”
So sang Annie Clark, aka St. Vincent, at the Anthem in D.C., the lyrics a wry commentary on social media that doubles as entendre. Dropping by the gleaming new music venue (a proverbial brighter light in a bigger box) last Monday, along with a near capacity crowd, I witnessed art rock brilliance. Interestingly, it included her indie short film as the opening act. That’s a novel way to see newer indie film projects — creative in solving a distribution challenge (albeit with a captive audience) — but no less powerful in the communal way it was being consumed by a receptive audience.
Inaugurated last October, the Anthem quickly dazzled audiences with its raw industrial design, pristine sound system and intimate atmosphere — a difficult feat considering it resembles a cross between an enormous arena and the much smaller (yet still mighty) 9:30 Club. Except that it’s five times as large as its uptown cousin. Owned and operated by IMP, it’s part of a roster of venues that’s defiantly independent of national conglomerates like Live Nation that have come to dominate the concert music industry. To compete, co-owner Seth Hurwitz made what is arguably the best concert theater in the nation. Considered midsize, in-between the Verizon Center and the 9:30 Club, it fits neatly into D.C.’s live music landscape. I can’t help but wonder if New Spire Stages (nee Frederick Cultural Arts Center), with interior construction beginning in January, might be the midsize venue Frederick has been waiting for, booking vital national acts to pair with local bands. It’s potentially a quantum leap forward in putting Frederick’s music scene on the map.
Back to the show. Massive curtains retracted to reveal Act 1: a screening of Annie Clark’s debut as a film auteur. A blurring of film genres, “The Birthday Party” weaved comedy with horror. Puzzled ticket holders expecting the band to come out with instruments blazing were treated to a quirky film about a frantic mother’s attempt to maintain the illusion of normalcy during her daughter’s birthday party despite the presence of a dead body in the house. The film was backed by THX movie theater sound on steroids, compelling with a heart attack inducing soundtrack (Annie Clark’s — who else?) that set the mood on edge. Part of the “XX” horror anthology pieced together by female directors, those keen on seeing the short film in select art house theaters got their chance last February. For many, this concert was their first opportunity to see Clark’s film, a fascinating way to bring indie cinema to the public. Reading between the lines of Clark’s songs about isolation within a digital world, it suggests a commentary about the ways to see cinema; sure you could see it digitally on-demand (one avenue to view “The Birthday Party,” which does bridge a distribution gap for indie films), but nothing beats seeing a film with thousands of people seeing/hearing it for the first time, and getting a visceral reaction — together.
Act 2 reveals St. Vincent, coming out from a small opening in the curtains, armed with a mic, guitar and possibly a backing band further behind. Except with each song, stage-ninjas (they really do exist) pulled open portions of what increasingly looked like an empty stage. The Washington Post described her outfit as a “magenta fembot get-up,” part rock spectacle that nevertheless seemed to hold a deeper meaning — an act of a fierce feminist being transparent with her vulnerabilities — and possibly showing the absurdity of objectification. Gliding effervescently through her older catalogue of songs, reworked and reimagined, it took some getting used to the fact there wasn’t a backing band. Many things can go wrong going solo — from creating atmosphere to going live without a wire — keeping up with a backing track has it’s logistical challenges. Not many people can pull off a rock show like this and deliver. The deceptively minimalist concept, just herself, her voice and her guitar was all the fireworks needed.
The triple threat of her angelic how-can-she-sing-like-that voice in unison and in counterpoint with the shredding of her electric guitar (custom built by — you guessed it) with disorienting moving pictures behind her all amounted to not just a concert — but art as performance. It stripped away some of the pretenses and allowed the deconstructed songs to be appreciated in tandem with the focus on the delivery of her voice, her stage presence and her brilliant guitar work. Channelling Prince and David Byrne, the deconstructed music coming out from the PA speakers was transcendent.
An intermission and costume change later, Act 3 showcased her newest album, Masseduction. Illustrating the paradox of being connected by millions via technology, yet feeling increasingly out of contact, the solitary figure cut by Clark cast a wide shadow across the LED colored stage. Paired with images of her own looped films (that rivals the weird visual landscape from a Talking Heads concert circa 1983), the juxtaposition turned out to be devastatingly effective. The Washington Post observed, “Watching St. Vincent perform in front of St. Vincent is like being caught between two mirrors, an infinite loop of isolation.”