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Thursday, Feb. 18, 2010

St. Vincent @ The Pabst Theater

Feb. 17, 2010

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Annie Clark must have a thing for Milwaukee. The St. Vincent starlet has stopped here three times since June. "You are the shining gem of the Midwest," Clark told the city—charm is a quality that comes easy to her. Her latest gig Wednesday night at Turner Hall was seemingly the same show she played eight months ago except more relaxed, spiraling between Clark’s trademark affability and hostile song structure.

The Brooklyn-based songwriter has some seriously refined guitar chops, thanks to a three-year stay at Berklee College of Music and time in Sufjan Stevens backing band and the mega-group Polyphonic Spree. Her latest record, 2009’s Actor, combines her shared love for Disney soundtracks and audacious solos. Elegance and swagger are the main draws here, and Clark plays the role perfectly. Album opener “The Strangers” highlights what she does best: classical introduction mixed with tranquil submissiveness that transforms into a raging, heavily distorted guitar riff. It fittingly opened the night.

Although her four-piece band, which interchanged violin, saxophone, clarinet, flute and synths, clustered some songs with a cacophonous wall of sound, they provided an extra punch to the night’s sole unrelenting rock anthem, “Actor Out of Work.” But an endearing rendition of the Jackson Browne-written “These Days,” which she called a folky cousin to Ice Cube’s “Today Was a Good Day,” and a stark take on her desolate track, “Paris Is Burning” from 2007’s Marry Me—both performed solo—proved that Clark can play both cute and irascible even without a supporting cast.

“The Bed,” which pits a valiant hero armed with a Smith and Wesson against nocturnal monsters, sounded like a children’s nighttime lullaby lifted from a Tim Burton film. “Black Rainbow” played on the same frightful aspect, with an abrasive closing crescendo similar to something you’d hear at the climax of a creepy horror flick. The night closed with Clark at her most devilish on “Your Lips Are Red,” as she was lit with red stage lights. It’s her most rollicking tune, but even so it doesn’t end on a predictable note. Instead of ending it abruptly, she diverges into a soothing denouement, merging the abrasiveness with calm.

Photo by Cj Foeckler