St. Vincent Sony Centre for the Performing Arts, Toronto ON, July 31

St. Vincent Sony Centre for the Performing Arts, Toronto ON, July 31
Photo: Matt Forsythe
Close to the end of St. Vincent's blistering performance at Toronto's Sony Centre, songwriter Annie Clark set aside her guitar and sauntered up to the front of the stage to deliver an a cappella rendition of her fragile ballad, "New York." She awkwardly altered the lyrics with Toronto references, flubbed a couple of lines, and giggled while making self-deprecating cracks. The whole thing had the endearing yet uncomfortable tension of a high school talent show, and numerous fans yelled out to break the gulfs of silence.

It was a rare moment of touching vulnerability in what was otherwise an impeccably orchestrated, technically meticulous electro-rock spectacle. Clark took the stage wearing tight tan clothing, accented by orange thigh-high boots and gaudy arm bands that looked a bit like water wings. She was flanked by three backing musicians, including two guys wearing Ghostbusters-style jumpsuits, blonde bowl-cut wigs and creepy blank masks.
The ensemble launched into a string of cuts from last year's MASSEDUCTION, with the sparkling synth tones brought to life by a backdrop of colourful lights. Although there were only four of them on stage, they effectively brought St. Vincent's glitzy arrangements to life, with the predominantly acoustic drum kit giving synth bangers like "Los Angeles" and "Sugarboy" a little extra rock'n'roll muscle.

The rhythm section was air tight, which laid the perfect foundation for the controlled chaos of Clark's brilliant guitar playing. She's the best contemporary rock guitarist by a mile, although she rarely shows it off with unnecessary flashiness. Instead, she prefers to fire off skronky robo-riffs in unison with a synth ("Cruel"), slither her way through slippery adult-contemporary funk licks ("Savior"), or deliver ominous blasts of slide ("Masseduction"). Playing a variety of colours of her very own signature model guitar, she always showed perfect restraint — even when a masked stagehand eerily lurked just inches behind her for much of "Huey Newton," which culminated in fuzzy low-end blooze fireworks.

Clark delivered a few pleasantries between songs, name-dropping Toronto several times and offering vague political commentary about being yourself regardless of gender labels and dancing in spite of the world's socio-political turmoil. But mostly, this performance was all about meticulous art-pop precision — which is what made the aforementioned intro to "New York" all the more stark and riveting. 

After that, St. Vincent kept the mood mellow in the encore, closing with a barebones version of the aching "Happy Birthday, Johnny" followed by a stripped-down solo rendition "Severed Crossed Fingers" that was reworked with spooky, Radiohead-esque guitar arpeggios. This tender finale proved that, as impeccable as her scorching synth-rock songs are, she's even better at heartfelt intimacy.

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