Photos by Ellie Pritts
Right now doesn't exactly seem like an era for guitar gods, and, in 2014, it's hard to say if any music festival is the place for them, let alone a relatively restrained one like Pitchfork. What is the point of the guitar in a digital era? How can it flourish? Watching last night's headliner, Neutral Milk Hotel, for instance, one might have assumed the guitar was beating a slow and quiet retreat into the shadows, where it could continue to have plenty of capacity to emote but little to electrify.
But watching St. Vincent, the de facto headliner by virtue of having the weekend's most incredible set so far, offered the reassurance that the guitar can still perform miracles in the computerized age, that 2014 still can be a time for guitar deities—goddesses specifically. Watching Annie Clark shred, the guitar seemed like an instrument that had been born anew and imbued with all kinds of weird new sounds and qualities. It seemed overwhelmingly apparent during that show that St. Vincent is the best rock band in the world.
Annie Clark entered the stage walking in a robotic shuffle, and her movements throughout the show had an engineered stiffness that continued the non-analog theme. She occasionally would point imperiously out at the crowd as she sang, also a little like a robot being made to raise its arms in a programmed show of empathy. At a couple points, she and her bandmate played guitars while pacing in a tightly choreographed square.
Cutting through it was the lacerating catharsis of whatever guitar she was channeling the life force of at the moment. While Annie played, her body lost the robotic rigidity and, in a couple instances, she melted onto the floor in flashes of such intense focus that I found myself tearing up from the whole spectacle of it. Toward the end, she pretended to collapse on stage, wiped out by the power of her guitar solo and revived only by the presence of a new guitar. The juxtaposition was beautiful and resonant: Here was a person escaping the robotic and the electric, becoming human through the power of music. The medium was the message. It was fucking cool and also fucking brilliant.
Not only does Annie Clark kill at guitar—my notes are full of comments about how hard she was shredding, how much my face was melted off, etc.—she makes the instrument sound new and fresh, teasing out unexpected honks and rips of distortion that give the guitar the life it needs to compete in a world of computerized noise. Guitar rock can easily become boring as the monster riffs are piled on, as one major chord chorus gets traded out for another. Annie Clark makes the guitar sound interesting.
She also happens to have an incredibly strong catalog of songs, and a live setting animates the manic intensity of things like “Rattlesnake” while turning songs like “Cruel” into barn-burning sing-along anthems. As she stood on top of the small pink pyramid at the center of the stage singing “Prince Johnny,” Annie Clark seemed like the biggest pop star in the world, who also happened to be running her fingers up and down guitar frets at astounding speed.
That's another part of her appeal: St. Vincent is so clearly informed by pop stars even as she continues to make challenging music that, in ways that include her choice of instrument, is often at odds with pop. She wears short boots with killer heels. She has on a costume. She is distinctly feminine and poppy in her presentation, in the way that, say, Nicki Minaj is, but she is also unapologetically a rock star. It's a blend that not only looks cool but offers a different idea of what rock music might be, an idea of rock suited for the digital era, an idea of the guitar for a time when guitars are supposedly dead. It sounds motherfucking electric, and it looks like the goddamn future. And, of course, the songs are incredible—all of which means that St. Vincent is now the most exciting rock act working. We come to festival sets expecting to have a good time and have our expectations reaffirmed. St. Vincent upped the artform yesterday by giving us a set that pushed beyond any sort of expectation. It was incredible.
Kyle Kramer is, in this case, a digital and analog witness. He's on Twitter - @KyleKramer
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