Chances are if you have heard of any music venue in Vancouver, it’s the Commodore Ballroom. With a capacity of about a thousand, the Commodore is the tipping point between the city’s many fine clubs (The Cobalt, Biltmore, Fortune, etc.) and fabulously appointed concert halls (Orpheum, Queen Elizabeth, Vogue, etc.). It ties the city together, and there are few music venues in North America still thriving that boast its kind of history.
Designed in brilliant art deco style by H.H. Gillingham, the Commodore Cabaret was built in 1929. Unfortunately, that also was the year of the great stock market crash and subsequent depression, which had the effect of forcing the venue to close mere months after it opened. A section of the original stylized wall paneling is still on display near the coat check, a small piece of the art deco design puzzle that becomes rarer by the day in this terminal city presently infected by condo gentrification. To keep the Commodore alive in those lean years, the owners focused on dinner and dancing, with an evolving house big band (12-14 piece orchestras) the venue would maintain into the early 1970s. From the 30s to the 60s, the shadows of traveling artists Count Basie, Cab Calloway, George Burns, Duke Ellington, Sammy Davis Jr., and Tommy Dorsey all darkened its stage. However, it wasn’t until Drew Burns took over its lease in 1969, and changed its name from the Commodore Cabaret to the Commodore Ballroom, that it became iconic.
Under Burns’ direction, Captain Beefheart, New York Dolls, Kiss, Tim Buckley, Bo Diddley, Canned Heat, Talking Heads, and the Ramones all played there in the 70s, including the first Vancouver appearances by Patti Smith, Blondie, Devo, Tom Petty, The Police, and the North American debut of The Clash. The ’80s saw gigs from U2, XTC, the Cure, the Cramps, Iggy Pop, Gang of Four, Echo & The Bunnymen, Pixies, and others, while the 90s hosted the likes of Nirvana, The Pogues, The Buzzcocks, Primus, Happy Mondays, My Bloody Valentine, Beastie Boys, David Byrne, P.J. Harvey, Jesus Lizard, Stereolab, and too many more to name here.
Good times can’t last forever, though. When Drew’s lease ran out at the end of 1995, his vision went with him. The venue sat empty for three years, leaving a big hole in the local scene, until Live Nation (then House of Blues) dumped $3.5 million into renovations, replaced the bouncy dance floor and colored bubble pillars with a more subtle design, and started filling the venue with impressive names again. Under their control in the 2000s, the Commodore landed marquee performances once again, even convincing Tom Waits to play his first club show in nearly three decades to commemorate the venue’s 75th anniversary.
The great sightlines of the open floor design make the Commodore a near-perfect place to see an explosive artist like St. Vincent. Her sound is so vibrant, her performance so captivating, both of which have exponentially improved even since her last appearance at the Commodore in 2011.
Indeed, a former Polyphonic Spree cultist and touring bandmate of Sufjan Stevens, Annie Clark has been through a lot of changes. She released her major label debut, moving from the legendary independent 4AD to a Republic sub-label for her eponymous 2014 record, which has reached her highest point on the U.S., UK, and Canadian charts yet. Her music popped up on Boardwalk Empire and Twilight, while her appearance on a Season 4 episode of Portlandia all but cemented her pop culture relevance for this generation. Perhaps most importantly, though, her 2012 full-length collaboration and tour with David Byrne (who also has multiple Commodore appearances to his credit) seems to have given her wings on stage and in life. It’s with no false modesty that her new album was self-titled. She has just arrived.
Eventually, the lights dimmed and, after fashionable pause, the synth lead from “Rattlesnake” kicked in and Clark drifted into position. She was totally pale, save her piercing blue eye-shadow and a floral disemboweling on her summer dress, her wild blond mane channeling the kind of Einstein-crazy of which Wayne Coyne would approve. Clark’s guitar sound and technique is impossible. It sounds something like Steve Vai or Tom Morello, but placed in an indie art-pop context well beyond the comprehension of either. On this tour, she relied on supporting guitar/synth player Toko Yasuda (formerly of The Lapse, Enon, and, briefly, Blonde Redhead), keyboardist Daniel Mintseris (who Clark later introduced as “a priest of ones and zeroes”), and percussionist Matt Johnson (“thrower of hot lava” and former drummer for Jeff Buckley) to create the skeletons for her to flesh out with her elegant vocals, delivering cerebral yet relatable lyrics, and tasteful guitar. She shreds with alien theatricality, ever mind-boggling yet never showboating, favoring intuition over classical training as a dozen assorted pedals forge her distinctive timbre. Her voice was incredible too, an angelic tone pure as the driven snow one minute and modulated with guttural tones the next.
Apparently working with artistic director Willo Perron (of Lady Gaga fame) and choreographer Annie-b Parson for this tour, Clark gave off a far more confident vibe onstage than she did when I first saw her at the 2010 Calgary Folk Fest. She seemed reluctantly thrust into the spotlight by her undeniable talent and vision back then, just after her sophomore album Actors hit the shelves. Now, her nervous energy has been channeled into effortless smiles and plot-driven gestures, like trading skitter walks with Yasuda as they swapped riffs, slowly rolling down a set of stairs at the back of the stage, taking her pulse during “Digital Witness,” and head-banging harder than Beavis and/or Butthead on “Your Lips Are Red” (which bore little resemblance to the version on her 2007 debut Marry Me).
Some of the biggest cheers and sing-alongs went to older material, namely “Cruel” and “Cheerleader” from 2011’s Strange Mercy. Her set-list heavily favored her new album, though, and she did an amazing job of balancing her older tracks with her present style, having evolved from its comparatively simplistic beginning and baroque development to the maximalist noise-pop present, what she described as “a party record you could play at a funeral.” Nothing was played exactly as it was on record, but nothing was alienating. The arrangement for “Laughing With a Mouth of Blood” from Actor was more dramatic than the studio version, using electric instead of acoustic guitar and driven by digital strings rather than embellished by an organic string section, likely out of necessity but employed to great effect. The titular track from Strange Mercy received the most drastic change, performed in the encore with only Clark’s emotive vocals and mournful electric guitar.
As of late, the Commodore’s soundsystem has been sounding tired, the victim of too many excessively loud shows tipping over the distortion boiling point, yet Clark held it together admirably while demonstrating Bowie-level charisma. While Yasuda added essential ingredients on the Theremin and Moog Voyager, Mintseris triggered choir and synth patches with a MIDI keyboard, and Johnson filled in the blanks on a hybrid drum kit, you couldn’t take your eyes off Clark for a second. She twitched, shrugged, and nodded, burning a hole in the fabric of space/time with her smouldering glare. She’s unreal. It doesn’t seem possible by the laws of physics and chance that a human being could be this weird, gorgeous, and talented.
But seeing is believing. It’s heartwarming to watch someone who came out of the gate so full of promise realize their full potential. Annie Clark is a fantasy become corporeal, maximum skill and style. Right now, she deserves all the fucking praise she can get.
[St. Vincent photos: Caily DiPuma]