"I'm worried we've played too many upbeat numbers," deadpans Annie Clark, stood onstage accompanied by just a piano and the pianist Thomas Bartlett. “Are you all not too bummed out?” If tonight’s performance has been sombre, then it’s testament to the myriad of different hats that the songs of Annie Clark can wear.
Tonight’s show at Knightsbridge’s century old Cadogan Hall is a one-off performance acting as something of a counterpoint to Clark’s still ongoing ‘Fear the Future’ tour. That tour has been marked by its heavy stylisation and focus on concept – initial dates were just Clark, a guitar and a backing track, before the show morphed into a no less crafted and deliberate full band show.
This is something Clark acknowledges tonight in one way, joking that "the pyro is about to come out any minute", and acknowledges in another way by clearly enjoying the freedom that the sparse accompaniment tonight brings. There’s nothing minimalist or sparing about Bartlett’s piano playing tonight. A respected musician, arranger and producer in his own right – generally operating under the alias Doveman – tonight Bartlett’s playing is furious and highly dynamic, transforming the material at points, and elegant in restraint at others.
The two walk onstage hand in hand, and Clark explains to the audience that Bartlett has been one of her best friends for ten years and that the arrangements we hear tonight (only previously performed earlier this year at the Newport Folk Festival) have been hammered out over numerous late night tequila-fuelled sessions.
Though in performance her manner remains enigmatic and brooding, Clark’s tone tonight is more conversational and playful than the Fear The Future tour and persona will generally permit. Towards the end of the night there’s an uneven, perhaps under- rehearsed, airing of Joni Mitchell’s 'Court And Spark' – if this is the only point in the set that falters, it’s still highly engaging watching a great artist who (rightly) prizes control enjoying vulnerability and risk.
There are genuine adults – people with driving licenses and allowed to operate heavy machinery and everything - who will tell you that a good song can only be a good song if it works stripped down to chords and melody. This is clearly nonsense and to be avoided, but it is an interesting experiment to hear Clark’s writing so pared back tonight, finding new space in which to exist.
The set is heavy on track’s from last year’s career best and bona fide breakthrough ‘Masseduction’, and the new arrangements put the themes with which this album brims into the spotlight – celebrity, America, prescription drugs, the female gaze, all the good stuff. 'Pills', with its nagging, nursery rhyme chorus it’s the most straightforwardly pop thing Clark has done in her career – and yet tonight it transforms into a gothic ballad, its malevolent satire boiling to the surface.
Similarly the album’s title track ‘Masseduction’, aired early tonight – once a synth pop banger, tonight the assertive sexuality of its recorded version becomes something more anxious, neurotic and altogether more seedy. The result is thrilling.
The emotional heart of tonight is the airing of ‘Prince Johnny’ and ‘Happy Birthday Johnny’, from 2014’s ‘St Vincent’ and last year’s ‘Masseduction’ respectively. It’s a two part tribute to the rise and fall of the song’s protagonist, the decadent but flaky Johnny. “Remember the time that we snorted the piece of the Berlin Wall that you extorted,” laughs Clark on the former track, but by the latter Johnny is phoning Clark on New Year’s Eve from the streets: “Yeah, I wouldn’t believe all the shit that you've seen...”
‘Saviour’, a paean to S&M and sideways look at erotic cliché, is given an almost cabaret treatment tonight, and ‘Slow Disco’, the torch song that closes ‘Masseduction’ and was reworked as a disco track this year (‘Fast Slow Disco’) packs a gut punch only matched by the singalong finale of ‘New York’.
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Words: Fergal Kinney
Photography: Carsten Windhorst
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