St. Vincent can do anything. Maybe not quite literally, but generally speaking, Annie Clark is the kind of artist that always feels foolish to bet against. It’s not just her own brand of adventurous songwriting, which has been bravely evolving for the last decade and resulted in numerous reimaginings of both her musical aesthetic and her visual presentation. No, Annie Clark just seems like she’s good at everything she puts her mind to.
Within the last few years, she’s tried her hand at directing films (she offered up a segment for the all-female horror anthology XX), she’s played the role of fill-in bandleader on Late Night With Seth Meyers, and scored an Intel 3D digital experience at Coachella. She’s shown acting chops on Portlandia and dutifully taken on the roll of musical collaborator with David Byrne on the Love This Giant project. She’s been comfortable in the background, too, both in her early days as a member of The Polyphonic Spree and simply backing up her friend Sufjan Stevens at this year’s Academy Awards. And in even more idiosyncratic territory, she famously showed off her soccer skills for Rookie, designed her own guitar, and has racked up nearly half a million Youtube plays on a clip that just features her looking into the camera and saying “I love you.”
Tuesday night at the Belasco Theatre in Downtown Los Angeles, St. Vincent once again stepped into unfamiliar territory and there was little doubt in anyone’s mind that she would again excel. The concert was billed as “An Intimate Performance” in which she would perform her songs with nothing but her longtime friend Thomas Bartlett accompanying her on piano. The setup had been quietly debuted a month earlier in London, and for anyone paying close enough attention — she released a piano version of her Masseduction closer “Slow Disco,” redubbed “Slow Slow Disco — it teased the beginning of something larger.
Stripped down or acoustic shows are hardly groundbreaking, but St. Vincent had something bigger in mind. For one, the show saw her putting down her trademark guitar and just singing. During the set, she noted how foreign the idea of holding a microphone is for her, how she didn’t put enough forethought into how she was holding it, and how she worried that her pinky-in-the-air form came across as too bourgeoise (she promptly wrapped the microphone cable around her arm and did her best Henry Rollins impression at this realization).
On paper, watching St. Vincent paring down her songs to just their vocals and piano sounded like something could be lost in the process, like it could even run the risk of being boring. But St. Vincent embodied a much more classic role on this Los Angeles evening, taking cues from the lounge singing troubadours of years past like Frank Sinatra or Dean Martin. Sure, a big part of the performance was how she brought the songs to life musically, but she also becomes something of a standup comedian in between. Nearly every number was prefaced with a story, and almost all of the stories had punchlines, leading to insight to how “Slow Disco” was named (via a text message conversation with Revolution member Wendy Melvoin), where “Smoking Section” was written (on a cruise from Sweden to Poland), and how to explain to a little brother about a family dog’s death. She admitted to being a little tipsy and that inebriation led to loose, often hilarious banter. It’s a far different job to go from rock star to full-on entertainer, and it was one that St. Vincent proved to be completely ready for.