Is St. Vincent our only real current female rock star? There’s a case to be made for her singularity, if we’re talking “rock star” not in the Post Malone sense, or even the Gaga/Pink/Madonna model of a pop goddess with rock attitude, but a star who actually plays rock and roll… and who’s leading it into the future, not reliving glory days. In these lean times for the genre, if there has to be just one, it’s a handy thing to have Annie Clark filling the position: She’s got enough style, ambition, chops, and complications for a half-dozen rock auteurs.
Clark had a lot of shoes to fill on stage Thursday at the Hollywood Palladium, too, since her current “Fear the Future” tour is a one-woman show. There’s a reason that the terms “rock and roll” and “playing to tracks” tend to be mutually exclusive, and fans who’ve dug her previous tours with a crack band maybe had reason to be suspicious of, if not fear, her future as a true solo artist. If anyone in the sold-out house missed the band on first blush Thursday, though, that probably didn’t last long. (Purportedly, they’ll be back, anyway.) Clark is as expert as an Ed Sheeran or Kanye West in captivating a crowd for the better part of two hours without other humans on stage, and unlike those guys, she does it without any ingratiating (or maddening) monologues. Even solo, she’s about making a racket, and the lack of companionship lets you focus on St. Vincent the Guitar Hero… not to mention, with her vivid costuming and background videos, St. Vincent the Pop-Art Project.
A cheeky, mimeograph-looking program handed out at the door alerted concertgoers to a three-part show. Part 1 was the opening set by ex-Windham Hill husband-and-wife jazz duo Tuck & Patti, which would count as the weirdest co-billing since Jimi Hendrix opened for the Monkees, if you didn’t know that the virtuoso electric guitarist Tuck Andress is Clark’s uncle. Shredding, apparently, is in the bloodline. Tuck drew whoops ripping through an instrumental version of “Man in the Mirror,” but what was even more remarkable was hearing an indie-rock crowd go silent for five minutes while Patti Andress took a break from belting to talk movingly between songs about staying alert to people in poverty. (If Tuck, Patti, and Annie want to raise money for a food bank, they should raffle off the chance to be a fly on the wall at their next family reunion.)
Part 2 would be Clark playing 10 chronological songs from her previous four albums, followed, after a few minutes of darkness and a wardrobe change, by Part 3, a full run-through of the 13 songs from St. Vincent’s three-month-old “Masseduction.” The new album would be “performed as a multimedia piece, my live ‘Lemonade’,” she wrote, immodestly but accurately. The staging was two-part, as well, with the oldies portion having no production design other than a gradually opening curtain that created more room for rawking as it went along — a simple but effective enough metaphor for the evolution of an artistic career — followed by a full video installation for “Masseduction” that skirted the line between concert hall and modern-art museum space.
The hot pink that Clark wore for the first part of her performance gave way to a slightly more Ziggy-esque outfit for the last, underscoring the Bowie comparisons she tends to pick up. Those have some merit, since she’s chameleonic, prone to treating herself as a canvas, a little bit elusive as a character, a little bit touched by genius, and now, with “Masseduction,” embracing the grandiosity of pop in a bigger way. But another Bowie-related comparison came to mind Thursday — that you could find just as much influence coming from some of Bowie’s greatest guitarists, particularly gonzo players like Robert Fripp and Adrian Belew, in her short but utterly manic solos. Maybe the one drawback of her having hooked up with Jack Antonoff (Lorde, Taylor Swift) for “Masseduction” is that, as someone who leans on the programming, he’s never going to be the guy who begs an artist to kick out the jams. So to hear Clark go even 15 percent more insane on the bursts of guitar in songs like “Pills” made the new gems feel even more fully realized.
She’s just as powerful in the occasional songs where she puts the guitars down, too. The new album doesn’t just embrace the glories of glam-rock in a bigger, more produced way. It also has some starker singer/songwriter moments, like “Happy Birthday, Johnny,” an account of a breakdown in friendship with a BFF who’s showed up repeatedly in her songs; when she sang the line “Of course, I blame me,” it appeared on screen in plaintive cursive, replacing the pop art for a moment of pure vulnerability. A balladic time-out like this felt less Ziggy at the Hammersmith Odeon, more Judy at the (London) Palladium.
You might hesitate to append “female” to St. Vincent’s status as a rock star — they’re rare enough in either gender nowadays — but there’s something thrilling about the way she plays with gender archetypes that makes the tag feel not so superfluous. There haven’t been many times in history when a rocker could first appear on the stage in what Clark refers to as her “bunny outfit” — puffy neckband and armbands, vinyl-looking bustier and leotard, thigh-high boots, all rabid pink — and not have to fear she wouldn’t be taken seriously. With her outfits, her slightly racy new album cover, and some stage videos that have her looking like a more demure model or housewife out of the ‘60s, you get the idea she’s using herself as a palette to playfully toy with our or her own ideas of what counts as feminine, feminist, or fierce.
Clark doesn’t do much editorializing on stage, and her songs tackle a lot of subjects besides feminism and sexuality: bicoastalism, friendships lost and found, pharmaceuticals, dystopia, death, taking out the garbage. But one of the few moments when she spoke to the crowd with anything other than a friendly greeting Thursday was to introduce “Sugarboy” (a new number that takes a sonic cue from Donna Summer’s “I Feel Love”) by saying, “This next song is for all the girls, for all the boys, and for everybody who doesn’t fit very neatly into either of those categories.” That gender fluidity message came from somebody who doesn’t come off as anything but all-woman in her revolving door of distinctly female imagery. But in Clark’s approach to her art, and her attitude? Maybe there’s no androgyny like the androgyny of just being a boss. And at the Palladium, we got an all-too-rare look into what rock and roll ownership is about.