Fresh from touring America, appearing on Letterman and releasing their third album ‘Strange Mercy’ through 4AD, St. Vincent are set to face a sell out crowd in Manchester’s cosy Deaf Institute. It’s difficult to move in here, there’s a buzz of real excitement and it looks as though this venue will finally experience a proper light show.

Annie Clark admits St.Vincent have “…all fallen a little in love with Cate Le Bon“. Her support set sees her stand alone on the stage of her “favourite venue” with her electric guitar, which is connected to a small pink amp, which in turn sits behind a microphone. The resulting sound from the arrangement is very delicate and warm, coupled with her lyrics which tell tales of her experiences and delve deep into her thoughts. The Welsh singer songwriter sings like Nico during the low notes, Judy Dyble from Fairport Convention during the very high notes (great vocal range) and generally like Vashti Bunyan or Marianne Faithfull. The song structures are unpredictable and mesmerising, the melancholy tone commands a respectful hush in the crowd, throughout. Her self-deprecating comments between songs endear her to the audience even further.

The rather stylish looking St. Vincent take to the stage in front of the red curtains. Cate is back to provide backing vocals, sandwiched in between two keyboard players on her left, and a drummer, visible over a low set drumkit, who’s wearing massive old skool headphones, to her right. It’s pitch black just before the first tune, they wait long enough until there’s complete silence before the low, rear spotlights search around the hall, backlighting the woman herself in dramatic fashion.

Ex Polyphonic Spree and Sufjan Stevens band member Annie Clark is a petite but intense lead singer. Like a Texan PJ Harvey, she thrashes her electric guitar manically at times, with an incredible amount of both skill and disregard. ‘Surgeon’ starts things off, with soaring, layered vocals and synth pads. The spotlights occasionally find the large mirrorball in the centre of the hall and flood the place with gently rotating shards of white. Strobe effects kick in during the manic chorus, Annie’s rapid fingerwork impress along with her crystal clear vocal.

The crowd are a mixed bag, over 50’s look on as groups of teenagers dance around and sing, while groups of 30 something men holler loudly between songs and let out ear-splitting whistles. ‘Cheerleader’ brings about another great mirrorball moment, the fluctuating mood in these songs provide plenty of drama. ‘Save Me From What I Want’ and ‘Actor Out Of Work’ from the commercially successful second album ‘Actor’ benefit from a reworking in the current set up, blending seamlessly with the music from the latest album to create a coherent compilation.

I little “factoid” from Annie, ‘Chloe In The Afternoon’ was inspired by a 1972 French film of the same name, about a happily married man who can’t stop looking at beautiful women. She gives us a few anecdotes between songs, explaining the rather dark storyline for the video of recent single ‘Cruel’ in hilarious fashion, and telling how they all chased some doe around a graveyard at midnight on Halloween in DC before realising they could get murdered.

‘Neutered Fruit’ is the highlight, for me. The lyrics “Did you ever really stare at me” gently ease us into the tune before the raspy guitar that’s full of attitude is accompanied by a groovy beat and choral backing vocals. The tempo rises to the chorus and then breaks down to a guitar solo with the drummer now hitting a slightly muted, funky, cool rhythm. The enthusiasm that the crowd put into the applause is staggering and justified.

St. Vincent were joined in London by the lead singer of The Pop Group, Mark Stewart, a Bristolian who she describes as “slightly mad”. They cover his 1979 hit ‘She’s Beyond Good and Evil’, which sounds a little like The Clash. The link to British 70’s pop is a little leftfield compared to the rest of the set, but it’s a superb rendition nonetheless, worrying some of the older audience members who realise that they might just find themselves in a mosh pit.

The crowds enthusiasm never diminishes, songs that are recognised during the intro have fans jumping in delight. The industrial grindings of ‘Marrow’ close the deal on an encore that simply has to happen, if only to prevent the audience from stomping the house down. Jacket off, Annie beautifully sings “The Party” with just the trilby’d keys player accompanying her. Her vocal is more than up to the task, when exposed as it is now… no longer hiding behind a raspy guitar.

They finish with the pounding ‘Your Lips Are Red’, the verse builds tension once more before a raucous and random thrashing of instruments. Annie steps from behind the mic and leans over the front of the high stage. She goes further and takes her guitar into the crowd, inviting people to hit the strings and help contribute to the noisy mess. She eventually clambers back on stage, looking a little flustered but exhilarated, and starts the soothing and euphoric ending to the song “your skin’s so fair it’s not fair”, she’s bathed in cool blue light and repeats the refrain during the fade… the awestruck crowd pause before outwardly venting their emotions. “Totally amazing” is one of the many typical comments that can be heard as we filter out into the grand stairway, to be greeted by a film crew. The fabulous Deaf Institute has never before seemed so spectacular.

Peter Rea

I like to go see fresh new music at Manchester's superb selection of smaller venues, and then share my enthusiasm.