St. Vincent / May 21, 2009 / Philadelphia (First Unitarian Church)

If you’ve never seen St. Vincent (aka Annie Clark) perform live or given her albums a close listen, you might wonder how this lilting songstress has separated herself from all the other aspiring female singer-songwriters still looking for an audience. The difference is her deft navigation through genre: Clark’s songs often crack open unexpectedly, exposing a deeper yearning buried under a shiny façade.

St. Vincent’s set on Thursday night (May 21) at Philadelphia, Pa.’s First Unitarian Church was stuffed with swift movements that felt necessary, not showcases for technical precision. Clark's just-released sophomore album, “Actor”, explores hidden dissatisfaction; the live show found her sinking into the characters of her songs and shaking up their too-pretty pop beginnings with harsh passages.

Set opener “The Strangers” immediately captured the mood, settling in with a precious, waltz-like pace before a monster riff from Clark’s electric guitar came out of nowhere and pointed the song in a striking new direction. Backed by three multi-instrumentalists and a drummer, St. Vincent kept her sounds rich and varied, from the hummable pop-rock of “Now, Now” to the industrial, saxophone-led dance of “Marrow”. “Your Lips Are Red” was particularly intense during the encore, with Clark using a specialized microphone to distort her vocals into a cold, alien harmony.

At the center of the performance were Clark’s fiercely personal lyrics, which offered the audience a connection to the singer’s charmingly shy stage persona. During “Marry Me,” Clark, her eyes tightly closed and her fragile body bathed in green neon light, sang, “Marry me John, I’ll be so good to you,” and the crowd couldn’t help but feel her conviction.

The intimacy of the Church benefited opening act Pattern Is Movement, who broke up a solid set of warbling keyboard tunes with a killer cover of D’Angelo’s “Untitled (How Does It Feel).” Yet as St. Vincent’s set got underway, it became clear that Clark’s sound required a larger venue. “Actor” is too expansive a record to be heard in a small, dark room, and St. Vincent has graduated from the growing pains of her debut album to craft a fully realized statement.

Perhaps a Feist-like splash into the mainstream will grant St. Vincent the sold-out concert hall shows she deserves, but even if Clark never connects outside of the indie world, the singer has a gift for emotionally resonating, both on record and stage. While the full commercial dividends of “Actor” remain to be seen, Thursday’s performance displayed an artist beaming with confidence and songwriting skill.