St. Vincent fans in Los Angeles got to attend an album preview show Tuesday night… they just didn’t know it until immediately after the show was over. The singer performed a piano-and-voice only set with pianist Thomas Bartlett, consisting mostly of stripped-down arrangements of songs from last year’s “Masseduction” album. She didn’t talk about a new record during the performance, but upon leaving the Belasco Theatre, patrons were handed copies of a hand-written letter explaining the new album, while their phones received “Thank you for coming!” emails with cover art and pre-order links.
That new album, “MassEducation,” due imminently on Oct. 12, is an alternate, acoustic version of “Masseduction” recorded with Bartlett — and appears to be something very close to what the Belasco attendees had just heard, minus the Joni Mitchell cover and stage patter. The title appears to be a bit of a meta gag, as when St. Vincent had introduced “Masseduction” last fall, she had released a video playfully warning people not to wrongly render it as “mass education”… which many people went on to do anyway.
“Thomas Bartlett and I performed these songs over two days in a studio in midtown Manhattan, August 2017,” read the letter, which St. Vincent also released on social media following the concert. “We neither rehearsed nor spoke about how to approach any song, but rather played 2-3 live takes, picked the best one, and trusted the spirit of the moment. It was fast. Intuitive. Discovered. Raw.”
In concert, St. Vincent and Bartlett played 12 of the 13 tracks from “Masseduction” (minus a fleeting instrumental) plus three oldies (“Cheerleader,” “The Bed” and “I Prefer Your Love”) and a Joni cover, “Court and Spark,” she had introduced into her show a couple of times over the summer. The concert at downtown’s venerable Belasco — announced and instantly sold out just days earlier, in an already intimate theater made more so by having the balcony blocked off — was being filmed for purposes unknown by director Bobcat Goldthwait, who opened the show with a brief and rare bit of stand-up, at the headliner’s insistence, he said. “A lot of you probably weren’t born when I was relevant, but I used to be big in the ‘80s,” Goldthwait informed the crowd.
Any suspicions that the show might offer a laid-back version of St. Vincent were quickly set aside by the intensity of the playing by the clearly classically trained Bartlett, who would sometimes reach inside the piano to pluck at the strings for a guitar-like effect when he wasn’t doing virtuosic runs at the highest and lowest ends of the keyboard. “If there’s one thing he loves, it’s taking the ivory for a tinkle,” joked St. Vincent, aka Annie Clark, to Bartlett, aka Doveman, a nom de plume he has used in a career that has involved work with Sufjan Stevens, the National, Olivia Chaney and others… but, until recently, not so much St. Vincent, despite her repeated reminders that he has been one of her dearest friends in New York for more than 10 years.
Clark seemed surprised by some aspects of performing in this format. “Is that also in B flat? Jesus Christ!” she would offer, as Bartlett laid down an opening chord, and she realized, seemingly for the first time, that she has favored a certain melancholy key throughout her “sad catalog.” She also admitted that she felt self-conscious about how she was holding the microphone, now that, for once, she was in non-guitar shredder mode, worrying that she looked and felt like a lounge singer. She wrapped the cord around her right arm so she could look more like “the Rollins Band,” and let some serious expectorate go onto the stage, subsequently asking the hall to “send me the dry cleaning bill for the floor.” She further described the evening as “a Candid Camera version of VH1 Storytellers” and allowed that significant mutual amounts of tequila were going into the performance. It didn’t show in the purity of her tone or that of the unslurred piano.
As of minutes after the performance, the newly announced album was being teased online by a stream of the new piano version of “Savior,” which follows by a week a similar arrangement of “Slow Disco” that St. Vincent had dubbed “Slow Slow Disco.” But, judging from the live show, the album highlights could be “Fear the Future” and “Smoking Section,” which were among the songs that smoked their more fully arranged recorded versions in concert.
Although seemingly a diehard downtown New Yorker, St. Vincent seems to be favoring her “Los Ageless” side this month. Last week, she opened Beck’s Hollywood Bowl with a DJ set, and on Oct. 29 she’ll return with a full band to the Hollywood Palladium.