St Vincent at Albert Hall by Francesca Nottola


It is now almost a year since Black Francis appeared at Albert Hall to mark my first live event here at this Wesleyan chapel that had been largely hidden away and out of public consciousness for four decades. But it is only really in 2014 that the building has been fully resurrected and promoted as a music hall, and what a year it has been so far. The romance of this old building has attracted the likes of Slint and Neutral Milk Hotel, and with Manic Street Preachers and Interpol coming soon, I for one am feeling grateful for the opportunity to see shows here.

Tonight is the turn of St. Vincent to appear on the stage that sits beneath the towering roof and stained-glass windows. Stepping out to the pulsing synth rhythms of ‘Rattlesnake’, Annie Clark, the band’s singer/songwriter, lead guitarist and musical maestro, appears before us and begins by throwing some jittery shapes that are half robot and half Barbie doll. Half-way through the song, a stage-hand facilitates the moment I’ve been waiting for by bringing out the guitar that for me makes her look and sound worthy of a nickname like Princess such is the dominant way she takes command of her instrument, reminiscent of the ‘Purple Rain’ singer.

Amongst the fixtures and fittings here is the gigantic pipe organ that sits behind the stage. There is no video screen by the stage or much in the way of props. The band – Clark plus multi-instrumentalist Toko Yasuda (briefly of Blonde Redhead), keyboardist Peter Dyer and highly-regarded drummer Matt Johnson (formerly of Jeff Buckley and Rufus Wainwright’s bands) – clearly have a modest production budget for this Digital Witness Tour, yet it still feels like theatre. Flickering beams rapidly cast shadows and throw light on different parts of Clark’s face to make her look animated, and she emphasizes the effect with mechanical blinks and herky-jerky movements of the long limbs that, when she’s more still, from a distance bring to mind Ziggy Stardust and give her a PJ Harvey stage presence.

Throughout the modern technology-induced insomnia of ‘Digital Witness’, the uncomfortable tension of ‘Surgeon’ /’Marrow’, the feeling of being “entombed in the shrine of zeros and ones” in ‘Huey Newton’ and the anonymous sex of ‘Chloe in the Afternoon’, Clark’s sensual voice and constant eye contact with audience members offer some comfort and reassurance through the lyrical darkness and alienation. And as she stops between songs to tell us, “we never, ever, ever give up hope”.

Speaking to the audience, Clark’s words would come across as almost like a sermon if they weren’t so surreal and entertainingly strange. In one well-rehearsed address, she talks of repeated attempts to float off her parents’ bed by way of recreating the physics of a hot air balloon with the sheet, and in another we are told of a childhood magnifying glass, sunbeams and the whole neighbourhood catching fire.

As much as I’m enjoying the synth soundscapes and Clark’s effortlessly melodic guitar licks, it’s her performance of ‘Strange Mercy’, the title track of her 2011 LP that proves to be a highlight. Completely solo for the first time this evening, Clark stands atop a three-tiered white box that looks a bit like a no-nonsense wedding cake as she strips the song down to its bare bones, her guitar sounding spidery and spectral. Such is her slick performance all evening I’d swear she has ice coursing through her veins. Her every movement seems meticulously prepared and rehearsed, each gig merely being an exercise in execution of the plan.

Suddenly this is all turned on its head because, as “the Frank Lloyd Wright of drumming” Matt Johnson pounds away manically during the closing ‘Your Lips Are Red’, Clark first goes crowd surfing with her guitar, then climbs from the stage to the upper level and swings precariously on the railing. Fittingly, it’s a strange finale to a thoroughly enjoyable show that also had its poignant moments. And I can happily report that Clark, hauled up by two male audience members, survived her adventurous ascent of The Albert Hall and can go on to dazzle audiences in other cities on this hectic tour schedule of hers.

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Steve Jones

Apart from about five years in total, I've always lived in Manchester. Shame about the weather and lack of beach, but I do like it here. My all-time favourite gig would have to be The National at the Academy in about 2010, although I did get Matt Berninger's mic cable wrapped around my neck (that was a close one). My guilty pleasures include the music of Bruce Springsteen, and I also felt a bit bad for feeling such joy at seeing Counting Crows live in the early 2000s. I recommend Lifter Puller, a rather obnoxious and unpleasant-sounding band that I can't seem to get enough of, even though they are long disbanded. Amongst my Silent Radio gigs, I was blown away by John Murry. I'll let you know if anything tops that one.