It was the second “Austin City Limits” taping of St. Vincent’s career and her third concert at ACL Live since February, but on Monday night, “ACL” executive producer Terry Lickona introduced her by remarking about what a unique experience the 35-year-old Dallas artist also known as Annie Clark had in store for the audience.
“We’ve never seen anything like it in front of our cameras,” he said.
For her tour dates earlier this year, Clark appeared solo, taking the stage with nothing but her guitar. This time, she performed the same set she played at Coachella (Coachella setlists with “ACL” scrawled across them were handed out to media before the show) with a three-piece backing ensemble that included Toko Yasuda on bass, keys and vocals and two male artists, rendered as faceless mannequins, on electronics and drums.
The band eschewed the standard “Austin City Limits” stage, instead performing on a wide narrow plank with a high bank of flashing lights at their back, creating a “Tron”-like fantasy world where humanity must battle technology to prosper. Dressed in bright orange, thigh-high stiletto boots with an artfully cut bodysuit to match, Clark took the stage as the guitar-wielding anime heroine leading the fight.
Human emotion vs. digital coldness was a motif she returned to several times during a set that mixed in older tracks, while drawing heavily from her excellent 2017 album “Masseduction.” She moved like a wind-up doll at the beginning of “Pills,” and robotic voices announced the beginning of “Digital Witness.”
On “Masseduction,” which began the same way it does on the album, with Yasuda yelling “Power corrupts” in Japanese, a flurry of strobes underlined the futuristic hellscape while Clark unleashed furious guitar licks, fighting to break free.
Even on “New York,” the drummer led the audience in a fast clap, creating a driving pulse behind the most vulnerable song on the new album, adding an extra level of poignancy to the emotion breaking through Clark’s voice.
And this was the key to the show’s brilliance, the way it explored the power of contained emotion when it breaks free, through the defiant guitar wailing on songs like “Cheerleader,” “Rattlesnake” and “Fear the Future” and her vocal explorations on “Cruel” and the haunting cinematic harmonies on set closer “Slow Disco.”
Clark didn’t speak much during her main set, which is almost surely the set we’ll see at the Austin City Limits Music Fest later this year, but when she returned to the stage after a raucous call for an encore, she graciously talked about the “mind blowing performances” she’s seen on “ACL” and what an honor it was to be invited back. After blasting through “Hang On Me” with the band, she treated the audience to a few old tracks from her early days in Dallas playing “coffee shops, bad bars and, on a couple of occasions, a pizza parlor.”
“What a wonderful way to come back to the home state,” she said.