When does a rock concert become performance art?
Lake Highlands High School grad Annie Clark -- a.k.a. St. Vincent -- posed that question Saturday night to an adoring hometown crowd at the Bomb Factory in Deep Ellum. Like the rest of her music and her career, it was an enticing puzzle without a simple answer.
Touring behind her fifth studio album, Masseduction, Clark decided to test audiences -- and herself -- by performing her complex songs entirely solo. No band. No safety net. Just Clark, an electric guitar, and a bevy of backing tapes.
At times, the experiment made Clark seem icy and detached: She was Zoey Stardust, a frozen-eyed android, all alone on a huge stage for us to stare at like a circus freak.
But what a freak show it was. Clark walked onstage wearing a thigh-baring hot-pink outfit that seemed to ask the audience "Can a brainy feminist artist also be a sex symbol in the male-dominated world of rock 'n' roll?"
She toyed with that conundrum by spotlighting her derriere throughout the show -- first, by performing standing sideways and then showing off a butt model's backside in a series of videos. As one giant image of Clark's bum floated slowly across the screen, the guy behind me yelled to a friend "Look at that booty, dude!" All the while, Clark played that most phallic of instruments, the electric guitar, with total swagger and finesse.
For a one-person show, there was plenty to look at. Taking a cue from Talking Heads' concert film Stop Making Sense, Clark built suspense by changing the stage with bold, simple movements.
Curtains slowly vanished, lights brightened, and a small circular stage riser appeared midway through the show for Clark to step on to. Moving from song to song, she played a series of candy-colored guitars, each one designed to accent her costumes, lights and postmodern video clips.
Starting the show with her earlier songs and ending with Masseduction in its entirety, Clark hopscotched all over the map from free-form jazz guitar to torch songs to the nursery-rhyme pop of "Pills," her new tune about Big Pharma's tightening grip on society.
Her music could be cold and difficult at times. But every now and then, a sterling melody arose and grabbed you by the ears, like "New York" or especially "Los Ageless," her brilliant double-themed song about lost love and the futile attempt to recapture lost youth with cosmetic surgery.
Clark didn't speak very often, but when she did, she made it count: "This next song is for all the girls and for all the boys and anyone who doesn't fit very neatly into either of those categories," she said, introducing the new "Sugarboy."
Later, she broke free from her aloof persona and waxed nostalgic about growing up in Dallas, playing hooky from high school, visiting Bill's Records, and trying to find cool people who might help her unlock the mysteries of life.
"It only took 20 years, but now you're all here," she told the cheering crowd. "Dreams do come true, Dallas, Texas."