Love was in the air Saturday night at the Bluebird Theater in Denver, along with more than a few volts of static electricity. Naturally, because it was the eve of St. Valentine's Day, the official name of the holiday with a patron saint not named Cupid. So what better way for couples to express their feelings for each other than by checking out a Colfax Avenue nightclub.
Only the object of everyone's affection was standing onstage, a vision of loveliness in a slinky, black mini-dress with ruffles on the shoulders, matching leggings and soft, dark curls framing the face of innocence that could only compare to Snow White. The ruby red lips of the woman with a Disney fixation sealed the deal for this dream date every hot-blooded male - or female, for that matter - could bring home to mom.
Only Disney's child-like sweetheart of the 1930s could never spout Mamet, praise trailblazers Sleater-Kinney, appreciate Wizard of Oz weirdness or make an electric guitar roar like a Harley. So what's not to love?
"I love you, Annie," bellows a voice whose desperation is only exceeded by his predictability. But repeat offenders can't resist. It starts on the main floor and spreads to the rafters in a cozy venue (capacity 500) where admirers are forced to stand near the back wall bar in the Bluebird's compact balcony. And that's even before the first chord is struck. The crush is on.
Then Annie Clark, perhaps better known as St. Vincent in the art-rock world, wisely just goes to work, opening with "The Strangers." This dazzling piece of beauty and unleashed beast is a mere sample of what's to come from a songbook filled with fascination and imagination. Part creep show, part fairy tale, "The Strangers" entices listeners to "Paint the black hole blacker, paint the black hole blacker," before Clark gets the crowd's full attention with a barrage of fuzz-bombs. Taking after that formidable '80s power punk trio out of Minnesota, this is one Husker Du-it-yourself woman of independent means.
"You guys always kinds bring it. Thank you for bringing it yet again," Clark says, making this revved-up Denver audience turn reverential, feeling as if they are being treated to something extra special that won't be seen anywhere else. That fact that St. Vincent is making 18 other stops in February, in cities from Lawrence, Kansas to Columbus, Ohio, matters little to them.
Clark, who is touring in support of her critically acclaimed second album, Actor (4AD Records), learned finger-style guitar from uncle Tuck Andress (of Tuck and Patti jazz fame), previously performed with the Polyphonic Spree and Sufjan Stevens, then took the solo plunge under the guise of St. Vincent, her great-grandmother's middle name. The middle child in a family of nine kids, she could easily pass as the slimmer, taller (and definitely younger) sister of actress Alyssa Milano.
Clark, 27, takes a theatrical approach in concert, putting together a series of well-connected pieces that play out as performance art - without the pretension. While not as showy as Kate Bush or as grandiose as The Decemberists' A Short Fazed Hovel tour, she's every bit as adventurous, inventive and effective. Clark has stated she prefers comparisons to a pair of King Davids - Bowie and Byrne - over Bush anyway.
Head rattling or body quivering, Clark often seems to go into a trance-like state with guitar in hand, whether it's a vintage Harmony Bobcat or a more recent Fender Telecaster. These are equal opportunity weapons of mass destruction, only she is the one usually doling out the punishment to achieve the proper amount of distortion. There's even down-on-the-floor Hendrix theatrics on "Black Rainbow," which also features green laser sparks, blowing smoke and a soaring climax. Only the flames were missing.
Her supporting players - multi-instrumentalists Evan Smith, right (woodwinds, keyboard), Daniel Hart (violin and guitar), William Flynn (bass, clarinet) and Anthony LaMarca (drums, drum sampler) - supply plenty of heat, though. They help provide sweeping orchestral-like arrangements to Clark's sonically charged rhythms, avant-garde lyrics and seraphic singing.
But there's no doubt who's in charge here. Other than one ethereal number ("The Bed"), where she moves stage left to the keyboard, Clark is front and center, encircled by her four male musicians.
Moving back into position for a solo rendition of Jackson Browne's "These Days," which has been covered by performers from Nico to Gregg Allman to Fountains of Wayne, Clark seems touched but almost embarrassed by the spurts of wild applause.
"You can't cheer too loudly because I'll have Catholic guilt, thinking I'm not worthy and then I'll shrink offstage," she offers as the cheers and squeals for "Dreamboat Annie" continue.
"Is that being too candid?" she asks about her revelation, before thanking opening act Wildbirds & Peacedrums, a percussion-heavy pair who came "all the way from Sweden to melt your brains in," Clark says.
That opens the gates for fans to show what great lengths they took to express their admiration/devotion, from Salt Lake City to Los Angeles. "Thank you, I feel like I should pay for your plane fare or something," Clark timidly remarks before surmising, "This has kind of turned into a rally. A rally of awesome."
Clark and Co. keep the rally going by cranking out nine of the 11 songs she wrote for Actor. Closing out the set with "Marrow" and "The Party," the latter is a 7-minute journey to Dreamland ending peacefully with a hymnal chorus. (See a copy of the handwritten set list at left.)
Alone on stage again for the encore, Clark offers up a jazzy rendition of "Paris Is Burning," from her debut album, Marry Me, before the group joins in for the more holiday-appropriate "Your Lips Are Red." A squawking, screeching guitar under red-hot lights completes 75 minutes of irresistible exhilaration that combines all of her power and gory glory, undoubtedly putting the crowd in the proper mood.
Fittingly, Clark is on the receiving end of Happy Valentine's Day wishes before the encore. "Oh, of course, oh my God, Happy Valentine's Day everybody," she says, seemingly surprised that she needs a reminder. "This is the night to celebrate, right?"
It's easy to forget St. Valentine's Day when every day is St. Vincent's Day.
Bluebird set list
1. The Strangers
2. Save Me From What I Want
3. Laughing With A Mouth Of Blood
4. Actor Out Of Work
5. Jesus Saves, I Spend
6. Just The Same But Brand New
7. The Bed
8. These Days
9. Black Rainbow
11. The Party
Paris Is Burning
Your Lips Are Red
See the video of St. Vincent's "Laughing With A Mouth Of Blood" as Annie Clark appears in a comedy bit with Carrie Brownstein and Fred Armisen at an in-store performance at Women and Women First, described as "the most feminist of all feminist bookstores."
Follow Michael Bialas on Twitter: www.twitter.com/mjbialas