St Vincent review – Annie, get your scream on | St Vincent

St Vincent and backing singers at Oxford O2 Academy.

Suggesting that a woman’s screams are one of the best things about her art feels highly problematic in many ways, particularly when that artist is St Vincent, an athlete-level guitar player with a body of work that pulsates with intelligence and hot licks. St Vincent’s screams are next-level, though: guttural howls tinged with sex and suffering, informed by soul and punk; bravura moments where she holds a note for about a fortnight. Although these outbursts sound like wild abandon, they are precision-tooled. St Vincent is a performer who, having reduced her lungs to flaccid sacs, can go straight back into playing a riff on her custom designed guitar with a smirk.

On a hot night in Oxford at the start of her UK tour (and Pride month), St Vincent unleashes her scream early in the set on Daddy’s Home, the title track of her sixth album. Released in 2021, Daddy’s Home marked Annie Clark’s father’s release from prison – and so much else – through the prism of 70s-era sounds. It won her a Grammy, her third. Although St Vincent’s autobiography is often encoded in her work, subtly and not so subtly, Daddy’s Home reflects more candidly that although her father “did time” for fraud, “I did some time too”. The album is, in short, a kind of massive exhalation. And so is this gig.

St Vincent screams some more on Pay Your Way in Pain, another Daddy’s Home cut that struts between the bedroom and the existential abyss. Nothing is going right for St Vincent in the song’s lyrics. Rebuffed by the bank, by some disapproving women, by her very own “baby”, she is at the end of her tether. “What d’you want?” ask no fewer than three backing singers, a Greek chorus in jumpsuits and Lycra. “I wanna be loved!” St Vincent bawls – a normally poker-faced artist laying her cards on the table.

Every St Vincent album feels like a concept album to a greater or lesser degree, but Daddy’s Home marked a particularly startling step-change for Clark. This Texas-born, New York/LA transplant’s output has tended toward steeliness – or at least from 2010 and her breakthrough album, Strange Mercy. But here, on Daddy’s Home, was unexpected analogue warmth, the kind of sweat generated by wearing polyester with chiffon and leather; here were musical shades of tan and umber.

St Vincent and backing singers at Oxford O2 Academy.
‘I wanna be loved’: St Vincent and backing singers at O2 Academy, Oxford. Photograph: Sonja Horsman/The Observer

Gloriously, the Daddy’s Home live show follows suit, going big on old-school moves and hard on the wah-wah pedal, organs and what looks like a lap steel guitar that generates the sounds of an electric sitar. It’s easy to read this louche period piece as a reaffirmation of earthy basics: guitar duels that end up with the players Clark and Jason Falkner on their knees, a band-as-community all pulling together, the performers sharing sweat and spittle. The three effusive backing singers turn this lubricious night out into a soul revue as they magnify Clark, sashay around the stage, pretend to be in a trance or spin lighting bars dangerously around like double-sided lightsabers. A waitress in a pinafore and a headscarf brings on drinks in big tumblers and towels at regular intervals and dances around the already crowded stage on a faster version of Slow Disco.

In short, this is a tiny space, stuffed full of everything good. Every member of St Vincent’s band is committed to making this unassuming venue – formerly the Zodiac –feel like some celebrated Bowery Ballroom gig from 1974. Most songs end in the kind of fireworks that are normally saved for the set finale. After every track, Clark and Falkner strap on a fresh instrument. It could be an effect of St Vincent’s reality-warping powers, but they seem to get through about a dozen guitars each.

At the Holiday Party steps on to the path previously trodden by the Rolling Stones (and more recently by Primal Scream’s Screamadelica), with aplomb: despite the ministrations of the backing singers – “You can’t hide from me!” they accuse, with concern – it is yet another track about suffering, disguised, then transmuted into communion. There are more sad, sad songs, played as joyous shakedowns, in turn ambushed by challenging jazz-punk dissonance. Numerous cuts from previous St Vincent eras have adapted to the Daddy’s Home template, but there is still room for the machine music, aggro and gnarliness of Birth in Reverse.

Previous St Vincent tours have tended to underline Clark’s solitary uniqueness, by way of the dystopian cult leader persona of 2014’s self-titled album, or the latex-wrapped object of electronic desire held up by 2017’s Masseduction, which sliced open power structures, Clark’s love life and plastic surgery with an equally sharp scalpel. Clark comes on stage in character: her hair is bleached, her sleazy demimonde raincoat coming off to reveal a wide-lapelled jacket, blouse and bra. Throughout, she dabs herself ostentatiously with handkerchiefs with the air of a debutante surprised by her ability to perspire. But she breaks out of character to tell the audience how much she has missed “the hell outta y’all motherfuckers”, swearing volubly about feeling “lucky”, but not “fucking hashtag blessed”. The sweaty handkerchiefs end up in the crowd.

Just when it feels as if there can be no more guitar histrionics, and no more emotion, St Vincent finds another gear. On My Baby Wants a Baby, she considers motherhood in the light of her own experience of the hole left by an absent parent and her need to play guitar all day. And the song that is the grand finale, The Melting of the Sun, is an all-guns-blazing outro, in which Clark and her backing vocalists gee up not just the performer, but anyone listening. “Girl, you can’t give in now!” This is a version of Clark that’s just as well rendered as her previous character studies. Crucially, though, it’s one that now gets by with a little help from her friends.