Midway through St. Vincent’s full run-through of her 2017 album, MASSEDUCTION, at the Fillmore Auditorium on Monday, an object shot up from the audience, traced a graceful arc in the air, and then landed silently at the front of the stage. Even for those who couldn’t see the item, it was easy to tell that St. Vincent, whose real name is Annie Clark, was smirking atop the elevated platform. Clearly, the rock star was amused.
“You know, I get all sorts of gifts from fans,” Clark said before starting her next song. She listed examples of the things that she regularly receives: pictures, drawings, song lyrics, heartfelt poetry.
“In this case, I think I just got a pair of underwear,” she said, laughing. “And I can’t decide whether I care if they’re clean or not!”
It was the audience’s turn to laugh. And most probably expected Clark to leave it at that, having successfully landed her punchline. But Clark just kept going on and on about the underwear, a veritable routine that only got funnier and would have worked well in any standup comic’s repertoire.
But why, of all things, focus on the underwear banter?
For me, it would be the proof-of-concept moment for the show, when Clark cemented a connection with the audience. There was some real risk of that not happening, too, as Clark made the choice to perform her Fear the Future tour completely alone — as in there were no other musicians on stage with her during the entire performance.
Flying solo isn’t such a debatable decision for someone like a folk artist who only really needs a voice and a guitar (maybe a harmonica?) to get through a live set, but the music of St. Vincent is big and complex, with lots of drums, synth, brass, strings and psychedelic textures involved.
On Monday, there was no doubt that we still got the one-two punch of Clark’s raw, haunting voice and manic — near virtuosic — guitar playing; those elements, as piped through the Fillmore's speakers, were as live and heartfelt as they come. (Not to mention there was the whole David Bowie-esque visual element of Clark’s outfits during the show — one pink and one silver — just in case anyone forgot she is a consummate rock star).
The rest of the music, however, was canned. With no other musicians on stage, at least half of what we were hearing were backing tracks, pre-recorded before a tour and played through in-ear or stage monitors so the artist can play along. It seems that more and more major tours in 2017 and 2018, including Kendrick Lamar’s, have been experimenting with stripping down the number of live musicians in favor of focusing the audience’s attention on the frontman or -woman.
There are pros and cons to this. Clark, to her credit, gave it her all and was mesmerizing to watch. But there were moments when the backing tracks felt lackluster, such as a thirty-second-long canned string section during the song “Slow Disco.”
I found myself thinking: This would be next-level if that was actually coming from a live string quartet.
Other times, it was more direct: This would sound way better with a live drummer.
Kudos to Clark for her bravery, and if the majority of her audience doesn’t care about the use of backing tracks, she’s profiting handsomely; it’s much more profitable to go on tour without divvying up those $35-a-pop tickets with a bunch of other musicians.
That isn’t fair (for one, that quote completely misses her awesome guitar playing). But in the name of intimacy — which seems to be that elusive aim that artists like Clark and Lamar are going after with these stripped-down live sets — I felt on the fence about whether Clark achieved it during the first half of Monday’s concert.
Was I feeling more or less of a connection to Clark in light of her decision to perform her music without a band?
Then the underwear thing happened, and it totally changed the mood of the concert. Even if it was only a couple of minutes, by taking a break from the gravity and spectacle of it all, Clark relaxed. It felt like we were shooting the shit with a familiar friend.
“Oh, look, it appears to be fancy!” Clark said playfully when giving the panties a closer inspection.
Like your favorite nerdy friend, she launched into a lengthy tangent about how she always laughs whenever she thinks about the name of the premium undergarments sold at Target: Gilligan and O’Malley.
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“I bet you didn’t expect this,” Clark allowed, but forged onward with a joke about how much of a letdown it would be if someone was in the middle of an intimate act and had to stop and say, “Sorry, just need to take off my Gilligan and O’Malleys!”
The audience loved it. Before the underwear, Clark looked like she was a professional on autopilot. After the underwear, Clark looked like she was performing for us.
And so Denver won over Clark by throwing panties on stage. She won us over by proving, by the end of her show, that she really could carry the whole performance on her shoulders alone.
“Really, thank you for the panties,” she told us, barely containing her smile. “I’ll make a quilt out of them.”