St. Vincent at the Belasco Theater, Los Angeles (October 2, 2018)
She’s always defied expectations, and this show was no exception. After releasing Masseduction in 2017, a visceral, rocking incendiary song cycle that explores the swiftly shifting dynamics of modern times, it was announced earlier this year she would do an L.A. show downtown at the old Belasco Theater. Also, this show would be different: there would no band; no guitars, no drums, no feedback. Only St. Vincent and a pianist.
Wait a second. St.Vincent — known as much for her virtuosic electric guitar playing — was going to do a piano and voice only show? Why? Had she gone electric, like Dylan, only in reverse?
Perhaps it was a new chapter for her, maybe a quiet, reflective series of elegantly gentle ballads, much more Judy Collins than Jimi Hendrix.
Wrong. It was a concert as powerful, rocking, compelling and strident as anything she’s ever done. And in this elemental setting, the components of this equation: one voice, one piano, one ingeniously written song after the next — came across with stark, staggering power.
The choice of the amazing pianist Thomas Bartlett went a long way in defying any conventional concepts of a voice and piano concert. Bartlett, also known as Doveman, has worked with many great artists (Sufjan Stevens, David Byrne, Lou Reed, Yoko Ono and more), and is a remarkable pianist — one part Glenn Gould, one part Keith Jarrett, with a hint of John Cage — and always with great intensity of invention and soul. Hunching up over the keys like a vulture, his head disappearing beneath his shoulders, he coaxed a wide array of unexpected sounds from this grand piano. Often these were percussive, as he’d rap upon the wood of the piano like a tom-tom; other times he’d mute some of the piano strings with his right hand while playing haunting chords and melodic passages with his left, or strum the strings. Still other times he’d produce booming bass tones. But none of this was random; he tuned into the song — and the singer — with intense focus, providing her with a vivid and lively soundscape through which to vocalize.
And vocalize she did, using as many aspects of her voice as Doveman did with the piano. She’s a versatile and powerful singer who can leap vocally, not unlike Bowie, from a stately, clear voice that projects the lyrics with the direct conversational clarity of Broadway musical singing, to a full-throated intensity of power that, sans band, is remarkable.
The vigor of the vocals was surprising, as on her albums with full production, or live with a band, the full dynamic force she commands is somewhat obscured by all the other sonics. But here it was delivered against only the warm and percussive textures of the piano, so each dynamic nuance was crystallized. It evoked the unplugged performance of the late Kurt Cobain. Even with no drums, no electric guitar or bass, no distortion, the songs were as powerful as ever because the intensity baked into them remains, regardless of instrumentation, and is perhaps even more powerful in this raw, elemental state.
Like Cobain, as well as Dylan and Lennon, she’s a savvy songwriter who knows that it’s the solid architecture of a well-crafted song that allows it to be fully expressed. As much as each of these songwriters brought songs to a new expressive place, none exploded the song form itself. In fact, they did the very opposite by using the fundamental elements and limitations of the form itself to create new possibilities in songs. Like them, she hasn’t reinvented songs — but has breathed new fire into them with greatly inspired uses of the song structure (the chorus, verse, melody and lyric) to create new possibilities.
On this night, she opened with “Hang On Me,” an ideal example of her arty use of craft: the melody is poignant and beautiful, gently expanding, and crystallized in the simple direct language. She even uses that old pop music stand-by, the pre-chorus, which sets up the chorus lyrically and musically.
I cannot stop that aeroplane from crashin’
And we circle down from the sky
Yeah, so hang on me
Hang on me, hang on me
‘Cause you and me
We’re not meant for this world
You and me
We’re not meant for this world
From “Hang On Me”
By St. Vincent (Annie Clark)
Each of the songs on Masseduction is elegantly structured, fully invested with inventive, poetic language, and compelling, though never predictable, melodies. Presented unmasked, the greatness of her songwriting shone.
She opened with “Hang On Me,” and brought us the new gems, such as “Savior,” “Slow Disco,” “Los Ageless,” “Happy Birthday, Johnny,” and “Pills,” which sounds like a Talking Heads song we never heard. As with David Byrne, with whom she worked, on this song and others, she writes from the perspective of an alien, confronting our odd human foibles, and the madness of modern times here, for the first time.
Between songs she was warm and funny, speaking of how she and Bartlett had been friends for many years but had only just started making music. That sense of friendship exuded from the stage all night, as they joked and laughed between songs, and shared one of the secrets to their onstage joy: tequila. Before the show and during.
While taking a sip, she said Bartlett had shown her New York City in a way nobody else had. “He introduced me to so many downtown freaks, slam poets, performers and weirdos that I felt that I’d found my place in New York City. He’s been a real friend. It’s something that can’t be fabricated.”
Introducing one song as a sad one, she caught herself and said, “Actually they’re all sad. It’s depressing.” The song “Los Ageless,” she said, was written on a cruise ship from Sweden to Poland, a “cruise nobody wants to be on.”
She also did one cover, and, of course, an unexpected choice, “Court and Spark” by Joni Mitchell. Delivered with such heart and soul it was chilling, and a beautiful tribute to Joni. St. Vincent took the tempo a little slower than the original, but never strayed from that famously elegiac melody. With Bartlett’s cascading chords tenderly coasting and building, she brought out every word with a reverent clarity. It was beautifully poignant, both nostalgic and brand-new, and especially resonant here in the same “city of fallen angels” where the song is set.
There was more to this show than we even knew going in. It was being filmed for something yet announced and directed by Bobcat Goldthwait, who came out to open the show with some jokes and to talk about the filming. “Is it okay if I call Kavanaugh a rapist?” he asked. The crowd cheered. He informed us that cameras with giant booms would be moving through the theater all during the show, and it was wise not to look directly into the lens “as that would look really stupid and will be cut out for sure.”
After the show, he were all handed a handwritten letter from St. Vincent, in which she explained that the concert we saw was the basis of a new album, Masseducation, a studio recording of these songs performed with Bartlett on piano. It will be released on October 12.
“Thomas Bartlett and I performed these songs over two days in a studio in downtown Manhattan, August, 2017,” she wrote. “We neither rehearsed now spoke about how to approach any song, but took 2- 3 takes, picked the best one, and trusted the spirit of the moment. It was fast. Intuitive. Discovered. Raw.”
The choice of the Belasco Theater was appropriate, mirroring the intersection of holiness and human nature reflected in her songs, as its history contains both the sacred and profane. Opened in 1926 as a playhouse, it became a burlesque theater for several years before becoming a church, the Metropolitan Community Church. In 2011, it was reborn as the Belasco Theater.
St. Vincent returns to L.A. with a full band performance at the Palladium on October 29.