It’s like clockwork. Each year around this time, the first wave of music festival lineups are released. As online forums debate the font size of acts on Coachella’s poster and worry over whether scheduling will pit two favorites against one another at Bonnaroo, a far more disconcerting pattern has emerged as well: the dire lack of female talent being represented.
Those who try to explain away why festival bookings — especially headliners — are almost entirely dominated by male musicians offer only the weakest of arguments. The truth is that, despite a wealth of incredible options, festivals continue to sell-out with their current formula and money speaks louder than ethics. Even San Francisco’s own Outside Lands Festival has now gone a full decade without a proper female headliner. It’s unacceptable and appalling, but bookers, you’re in luck!
I have the perfect headliner for you, and her name is St. Vincent.
When it was first announced that the artist known by her family as Annie Clark was playing Bill Graham Civic Auditorium, I confess I was slightly skeptical. St. Vincent’s sound and consistently dazzling visual accompaniment seemed perfectly suited for the confines of Oakland’s Fox Theater, but Bill Graham? The venue is fairly charmless in its architecture, and with a capacity of 8,500, quite a sizeable room to play.
I’d say it took about four notes into opener “Marry Me” for St. Vincent to prove I didn’t know what the fuck I was talking about. Alone on stage with only her guitar and the rapt attention of a full house, Clark was captivating in the way only true rock stars can be. Across her set’s first five songs, a curtain cloaking much of the stage slowly retreated, revealing only more empty space for St. Vincent to fill with her fervid art rock anthems.
In fact, Clark’s presence was felt before she even took the stage thanks to openers Tuck & Patti – a married duo of immense talent who also happen to be Clark’s aunt and uncle. Between Patti Cathcart Andress’ potent vocals and Tuck Andress’ unreal acoustic cover of Stevie Wonder’s “I Wish,” it’s apparent that musical prowess must be in their genes. Also, it’s just totally badass to have your aunt and uncle open your tour – a gesture made all the easier owing to the fact that Tuck & Patti are fully deserving of their own place in the spotlight.
They also have one hell of a niece.
There’s no simple way to pinpoint what precisely made St. Vincent’s performance Monday night so electric. Certainly there’s the music itself, which challenges many conventions of rock by eschewing traditional song formulas. A verse in a St. Vincent song offers no guarantee of a round-trip ticket back to a chorus, and the originality of her sonic structures offer vessels for listener engagement that continue to demand your full attention.
Clark also has an eye for aesthetics, from her choice of outfit to the video snippets that played behind her during the evening’s second set, which comprised the entirety of her latest album, MASSEDUCTION. All of these elements seemed to work in perfect tandem. Seen through the silvers of the strobe lights that frequently dissected the audience, one’s eye might wander from the eerily still mannequin expression of the St. Vincent on screen to her real-life counterpart’s dramatically arched spine as her fingers scorched across a path of guitar frets.
“The world is on fire, as you all know,” Clark said during a pause in performance, “but the one thing I know is that there is always something to dance about.”
She followed her proclamation by launching into “Digital Witness,” a Big Brother treatise built around a synthesized brass line that is both dark and completely infectious.
After 23 songs, Clark finally took her leave. The feeling as the lights of Bill Graham Civic Auditorium poured down on the crowd was the same lingering daze of delight one gets upon have to trade a dream back in for reality. It’s what every festival booker is hoping to create when they compile talent in the secrecy of corner offices. It’s the drug that makes the hassles of service fees and surge pricing and metal detectors all worth it.
Soon the next wave of line-ups will come, and with them more of the same homogenized offerings that have begun to make some question whether the concept of music festivals can truly sustain itself indefinitely. One way to ensure longevity has always been to break the mold. Annie Clark knows how to do that in her sleep. It’s time to make the calls and send the emails — whatever it takes.
As the flame on the altar of music festivals grows dim, let us pray someone invites St. Vincent to reignite it.