By Bryan Rolli, special to the Statesman
“There is no place in the world I’d rather be than right here in Texas,” Annie Clark — better known by her stage name, St. Vincent — said three songs into her Thursday night ACL Live set, beaming as the audience applauded wildly.
I, on the other hand, would have preferred she move 6 inches to the left.
A moving curtain obscured three-quarters of the stage for the first several songs of Clark’s 90-minute performance, blocking many viewers’ lines of sight. Not exactly the best way to build momentum, but if the show opened with a smolder instead of a roaring flame, it also served to represent Clark’s metamorphosis into a live solo artist. The avant-garde pop star’s decision to perform without a backing band on her Fear the Future tour has polarized some fans, but her steely determination and cacophonous outbursts proved so captivating that, by the time the curtains opened completely to reveal the singer in a pink leather bodysuit and matching thigh-high boots, it was clear St. Vincent would be running her own show.
Clark has divided her current tour into two acts, the first a chronological romp through her first four albums: 2007’s “Marry Me,” 2009’s “Actor,” 2011’s “Strange Mercy” and 2014’s “St. Vincent.” As the demure pop leanings of her earlier material gave way to more abrasive sonic textures, the author lost herself amidst the explosive beats and disorienting strobe lights. She wrung dissonant slabs of noise from her signature Ernie Ball Music Man guitar and spat off the stage during “Cheerleader,” swishing the lyrics around in her mouth before delivering them with a sneer: “I don’t wanna be your cheerleader no more.”
She wasn’t. We were all hers.
Moments like these showed Clark’s penchant for vintage arena rock largesse, but she displayed pop star candor when she unstrapped her guitar and sat down in the center of the stage to sing the vulnerable alt-ballad “Strange Mercy.” Artists often use their stage personas to build a wall between themselves and their fans, but Clark eagerly engaged the audience between cathartic performances.
“We all know the world is on fire right now and everything is insane. We’re at a crucial arc in human history,” she said before playing electro-funk banger “Digital Witness,” whose “What’s the point of even sleeping?” refrain sounds like Prince’s “1999” updated for disenfranchised millennials. “But you know what? There’s always something to dance about. There’s always something to be joyful about. So let’s (expletive) go!”
Clark devoted act two exclusively to her latest album, October’s “Masseducation.” A close-up of the singer wearing a stupefied expression swelled on the video screen behind her and gave way to the album’s crackling opener, “Hang on Me.” Surrealistic videos of crumbling telephone cakes, bandaged women receiving plastic surgery and hyperspace time travel accompanied other songs, and Clark hurled herself into the material with such vigor that an already-spirited act one turned out to be merely a warm-up. She ripped tasteful solos on the hypnotic “Los Ageless” and the sensual “Savior,” and she silenced the room with the spellbindingly melancholy “Happy Birthday, Johnny.”
Before playing the yearning, towering “New York,” which solicited the loudest applause of the night, Clark thanked the audience for their enthusiasm and boasted that she had “been to at least two keg parties here when my sister was at UT.” She buttered them up further by changing the song’s opening line — “New York isn’t New York without you, love” — to something more geographically appropriate: “Austin isn’t Austin without Texans.”
“It’s a little bit of circular logic, but just go with it,” she deadpanned after the ad-lib. And go with it, we did — because ACL Live isn’t ACL Live without St. Vincent.