Laurie Anderson played at McCarter Theater last Saturday. Over a career spanning more than thirty years, Anderson has been called, varyingly, an instrumentalist, vocalist, composer, visual artist, avant-gardist, poet, photographer, filmmaker, technologist, writer, and, most prevailingly, performance artist. A man wearing a Velvet Underground T-shirt and seated behind me remarked on this particular epithet to his buddy before the show got started: “You mean ‘performance artist’ like when Colin Meloy did Colin Meloy Sings Live!?”

Avant-garde is a lazy and inexpressive term for what went down that evening. Anderson—sleek and skinny in dark grey and black, her hair tersely and intensely cut—stood with violin and synths in the center of the stage. Kevin Hearn—songwriter and instrumentalist for Barenaked Ladies—worked the keyboards, accordion, and piano. A stern man wearing sunglasses playing viola and an electric bassist rounded out the ensemble. The floor of the McCarter stage was covered in tea lights, lending a laid-back vibe to the whole cacophonous affair, like a coffee shop on the River Styx.

Anderson was in town performing material from her new record, Homeland, scheduled for release sometime next year. These were fuller compositions than the ones I’d heard on her studio records, the ones with cracking, salty synergy of live musicians, with braided violin and viola lines and skittering electronic beats and heft. Most of these songs fell along ABABAB lines: ominous, sing-spoken verse followed by swooping, melodic chorus followed by ominous verse followed by melodic chorus, and so on. Occasionally, a song would lapse into extended instrumental jam. This could be confusing: the crowd was, in many instances, unsure whether to applaud after a song, whether one song would simply slide into the next without pause, whether they had correctly identified the end of a song at all. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Her songs are topical. For me, this is good-bad, but not evil. Her songs parse modern life with an eye toward easy, packable absurdities, like underwear models, self-deluded experts, anti-Americanism, Rush Limbaugh, your Prius(es), the gold standard. Sarah Palin even made it into the conversation, though she was not animated by a musical metaphor in the same way that squawking birds “from before the world began” (piercing, ripping violin and viola shapes) or panicked American citizens (ululating, fallout-siren viola again) were. If Sarah Palin were a musical instrument, she’d be a shakuhachi flute.

Silvery and warm, Anderson’s voice is comfortable, like that of a children’s book narrator. It sounds terrifically, radically human through a vocoder, a fact that she indulges frequently on record and in live performance. She went even further along this vein when she flicked a switch and suddenly sounded like Oogie Boogie from The Nightmare Before Christmas. The audience really dug this; more on that in a moment. As Oogie Boogie, Anderson did more extended spoken-word bits about torture, about how English doesn’t have noun classes, about An Inconvenient Truth, about WMDs, about the war in Iraq.

There is something quietly unfashionable—something worn and weary and floppy—about this kind of discourse. Whenever Anderson would launch into her solo, spoken-word interludes, her bassist, a baldish man with dark glasses and unsmiling blazer, would lean his back in his chair and stare out into the darkened auditorium, eyes glazing over and bass slipping perilously down his lap. I imagine he’d heard these same acid bits of commentary at least three times in the past week, maybe even the night before, who’s to say. Hers are easy targets—military, industry, commerce, bureaucrats—and tethered to the times even though she might be late to the party with them. It probably doesn’t hold up too well on record, either, the stuff about the election. Her best, browned bits of storytelling are abstract narrative nuggets, unencumbered by the specifics of currency. From “Mambo and Bling”:

“You know that scene in the movie: a man comes running into the saloon and he’s out of breath … and he says ‘there’s trouble out at the mine!’  And every single person at the bar stops whatever they’re doing, and they all go running out through the swinging door—out … to the mine. Patriots, citizens: there’s trouble out at the mine.”

Looking around the audience during the performance, I noticed, at times, a good number of drooping eyelids and lolling heads, heavy with sleep. But they had paid good money to see this famous, important artist, and so any dozing off during a song would lead invariably to applause doubly vigorous, in atonement, when it ended.

In October 1981, Laurie Anderson’s “O Superman (For Massenet)” reached No. 2 on the UK pop charts. It is a distinction uncommon and perhaps unwelcome for a musician whose work is usually classified as “experimental,” but it is as woven into Anderson’s narrative as much as her work itself. Spoiler alert! Massenet is Jules Émile Frédéric Massenet, the French composer, and Superman is Clark Kent. There is something we talk about when we talk about avant-garde musicians, a something usually peppered with scare quotes and careful language and a cliquey manner of speaking that all put us several layers of meaning from what we’re really trying to get at.

But fine. At one point, Anderson slipped on a pair of white sunglasses, apparently fitted with a sensitive mic that translated vibrations in her skull into booming thuds on the P.A., and Anderson amused herself for a few bars slapping the sides of her head and gnashing her teeth. The audience liked it, especially the teeth thing. Anderson smiled when people laughed at her sunglasses. This is illuminating. Anderson is a performer above all else, more concerned with mambo and bling than with cerebral appeals to cultural delicacy.

Velvet Underground singer-songwriter Lou Reed married Laurie Anderson earlier this year in Boulder, Colorado. Reed is a strange, though not unsurprising, point of entry for many into Anderson. Ask, “Want to go to the Laurie Anderson concert?” in a Princeton dorm room and you’ll need to throw in the addendum, “She’s Lou Reed’s wife,” as though Anderson were about to add “What Goes On” to her set list in matrimonial homage. But dwelling on this point in 2008 is a bitchy way of vindicating Anderson’s cred as an experimental musician, just as bragging about having liked Laurie Anderson before “O Superman” was in 1981. Like I said, bitchy.

Still, people cheered when Reed wandered onstage for an unannounced guest spot on a song, “Lost Art of Conversation,” late in Anderson’s set. He wore a blue cowboy jacket, raw denim, and bright yellow Saucony sneakers. He was discombobulated, like he was surprised to be playing for such a nice audience. He accompanied the band on electric guitar and traded verses with his wife.

Anderson’s pliant, deliberate vocal style slipped and slid against Reed’s languorous, surly amble, which would sometimes arrive at a line just after the beat and take a little too long to leave it. “She pretends she’s a ballerina, he pretends he can sing,” they warbled lovably, and the good feelings would have been palpable had the viola stayed a little farther down in the mix, I think. Reed stood up after the song as if to take a bow, but only adjusted his large, wire-frame glasses instead.

He actually snuck back onstage midway through the last song in the set, adding some reverb-washed guitar noodling to a building wave of instrumental noise. I suppose that’s why he didn’t bow the first time. But then it was over, thanks very much, good night, thanks for coming. And they all stood up to bow, and the affectation fell away, leaving these smiling, rosy-cheeked musicians standing gawkily together in a row, stumbling over their attempts at synchronized salaams and slapping each other on the back.

In her only encore, Anderson stepped out from behind her synthesizer pulpit with her electric violin to perform at the front of the stage. Though physically alone and unmiked for the first time that evening, Anderson performed a meditative piece accompanied by a deceptive backing track of additional string parts. It was raw. There is something to be said there, I think, about the artifice of the thing, of how you can stand by yourself on a darkened stage and play solo violin and sound like a string quartet and have nobody in the audience know the difference. But then the piece ended, and she of the dirge-like electric violin was suddenly the laughing girl again, before the house lights came up, before she or I or you could care. And the giddy smile on her face was more real, the blown kisses and happy bows somehow more grateful.