All photos: Stephanie Breijo.
Ten minutes before David Byrne and Annie Clark took the stage of Bethesda’s Strathmore on Sunday night, a familiar voice piped through the venue, temporarily interrupting the sounds of chirping birds and lonely crickets that had been coming through the pristine sound system. It was Byrne, and not a recording of Byrne, but the elder statesman himself, relaying a simple and slightly odd request: Audience members were invited to take pictures of the performance, to record the audio, to film it even, but, please, don’t hold your iPad or preferred device so high and obnoxiously as to ruin the enjoyment of the people sitting in your vicinity. “We are very proud of the show and hope you enjoy it,” the former Talking Head frontman went on. “We hope you don’t spend the whole show enjoying it with a gadget in your face.”
The announcement spoke to what would follow, to the pulsing lights and the parade of contorted silhouettes stretched across a massive canvas, to the stream of choreographed movement, to the striking and recurring image of Byrne dancing lockstep with an eight piece brass band around Clark, her high heels and long legs shooting into a little black dress. This was a visually irresistible two hours of rock theater. And so, Byrne seemed to be suggesting, why fight an audience’s itch to capture and memorialize it forever?
But perhaps there was more to it than that. Clark and Byrne are touring in support of an album, Love This Giant, that never quite takes off. It’s a luxurious record, flooded with expensive sounding horn arrangements and clicking backtracks, and while it has a handful of great moments, there aren’t a whole lot of great songs. Save a few of Clarke’s contributions – notably “Weekend in the Dust” and “Ice Age” – the record can feel disconnected and clinical, the many moving parts laid on top of each other without ever properly congealing. If there is an arena, then, to sell this partnership, for the three forces – Byrne, Vincent, and the Greek chorus of brass – to come together, it’s in this live production. In this regard, Sunday night was certainly a success. And so, Byrne may also have been suggesting, a Youtube post or 85 couldn’t hurt.
How effective any one piece of documentation can be in capturing the spirit of this show is debatable though, in part because it’s not clear where exactly the best seat in the house was. Perched in the upper tier, I certainly lost some of the immediacy of the $250 (!) floor seats, but from up on high, the fluid and constant movement of the production was on full display.
Against a minimal backdrop – Lars Von Trier’s bare “Dogville” soundstage comes to mind – the accomplished eight-piece brass band was kept busy. It strutted alternately back and forth during “Weekend in the Dust”. It split into opposing halves for a rendition of St. Vincent’s “Marrow”, dueling across the stage à la the Jets and Sharks of “West Side Story”, leaving Clark in full spotlight. It snaked one-by-one through the stage like a Mardi Gras street band during Talking Head’s “Road to Nowhere”, the night’s joyous closer. Its one reprise came during a stunning take on another St. Vincent track, “Cheerleader”, for which they would provide fanfare whilst laying on their backs.
With a wireless headset, Byrne was free to float about the stage, often fading into the chorus line during Clark’s songs. The effect could be odd, Byrne looking ever the creepy loner, unsure of what exactly to do during songs that required nothing more than his occasional backing vocal. Clark, on the other hand, was more often than not kept busy on a variety of electric guitars, and her wide array of pedals kept her tethered to one spot for most of the night, though she broke away in her trademark backwards stutter-wobble whenever given the chance to shred. The moments when she was able to let loose to completely unplug – covers of Byrne’s “Lazy” and “Like Humans Do”, for example – found her standing side-by-side at the front of the stage with Byrne, her irrepressibly sexy hip shaking contrasted awkwardly but endearingly with his terrestrial water aerobics.
Songs from Love This Giant benefited significantly from the more organic arrangements. Supplanting the programmed backing of the LP, booming live drums turned the previously stately “Ice Age” and “Lazarus” into borderline bangers. Similarly, cuts from St. Vincent’s recent Strange Mercy – “Save Me From What I Want”, “Northern Lights”, the aforementioned “Marrow” and “Cruel” – went supernova, bolstered by swelling horns, though, understandably, losing a bit of their original crunch in the process. Every song had a bewitching cinematic quality, and the only knock here is that, as on Love This Giant, the tendency to paint again and again with such a grand, overwhelming pallet can wear on a listener, particularly in the case of a two hour show.
Byrne and Clark made an effort to temper the bombast, however. Talking Heads’ buoyant “This Must Be the Place” and “Burning Down the House” – the latter of which actually got people out of their seats and dancing – brought some much appreciated levity to the set. But it was the show’s softest moments that may have provided the real highlights. First, Byrne, Clark, and their army of brass players closed out the main set by lining shoulder to shoulder for a delicate take on Love This Giant‘s “Outside of Space & Time”. Even better was a flat-out gorgeous performance of St. Vincent’s “The Party”, from her orchestral-leaning Actor.
Time will tell whether this tour is a one-off, the culmination of a brief but fruitful partnership, or a taste of things to come. But even if it’s the former, it will live on in the pictures and videos of its attendees, just as David Byrne would want.