All words: Andy Johnson — All photos: Joy Asico
There’s a favor I need to ask you. I’d like for you to watch this video. I warn you: it’s long, but it’s worth it.
This is the full (88-minute) version of Talking Heads’ seminal 1984 concert movie Stop Making Sense. The film shows the band at its artistic peak, touring to promote Speaking In Tongues, their fifth album and the only one to feature an American Top 10 hit. Critically-acclaimed as one of the greatest rock movies ever made, this is no hastily-edited cashgrab. Director Jonathan Demme (later a Best Director winner for The Silence of the Lambs) consciously selected wide shots and looping arcs across the group instead of typical quick-cuts to help a viewer follow the performance. The brilliant decision to hire acclaimed funk musicians for the tour lend hits like “Take Me To The River” and “Life During Wartime” awesome credibility and it’s all tied together by David Byrne’s spastic mannerisms: tangoing with a lamp, jogging around the stage, thrashing about in a Noh suit, karate-chopping his arm. One could argue that Talking Heads are the best American rock band ever and I would be hard pressed to disagree.
It is appropriate that on David Byrne’s 60th birthday I’d see a band so heavily influenced by his band. The most obvious comparison is that Here We Go Magic mimics the Heads’ instrument/gender formula (I note that only 4 out of 5 listed members were present). Both are quintessentially unclassifiable art-rock groups that experiment with funk, punk, krautrock with just enough psychedelica to keep you dirty. Singer / guitarist / mastermind Luke Temple even strains and presses his voice like Byrne, although his singing is too smooth to accurately replicate Byrne’s sneer. Indeed, if you appreciate idiosyncratic indie-pop—and you probably do, because you’re reading this review—this was a good night.
It’s widely known Radiohead takes their name from a Talking Heads deep cut. Everyone’s favorite Oxfordians took a shine to Here We Go Magic after they were among the sparse crowd to watch them blaze through a Noon set at Glastonbury 2010. In what would be a boon for the young Brooklyn group, Radiohead uberproducer Nigel Godrich volunteered his services to craft their third album A Different Ship. Now, I love Radiohead. And I love Talking Heads. But A Different Ship is one boring-ass album, surrendering the jittery pace of sophomore album Pigeons in favor of Godrich’s laidback, moonlit vibe.
As I entered the Black Cat’s backstage, the fear came over me. You must have experienced this feeling before. It’s Shitty-New-Album Anxiety. The concern a band will minimize songs you want to hear to maximize newer off-putting new material. As a child of the ‘90s, I spent many hours watching The Simpsons. Its quotations are my scripture. I’d date a racist before a girl who despites The Simpsons. And so I must defer to Homer to summarize the dread when he sees Bachman-Turner Overdrive at the fair: “No talking, no new crap, Taking Care of Business! NOW!”
But up first was Brooklyn’s Hospitality. The band noted it was their second show in the DC area in as many weeks and they showed no sign of rust. Singer/guitarist Amber Papini tried her best to power through single “Friends and Friends” and standout “Liberal Arts” (lyric: “So you found the lock/ But not the key that college brings”) peppered smiles throughout the surprisingly-crowed room (this was DC on a Monday, after all), but her cute-yet-flat vocals lacked range and pizzazz.
Hospitality is boilerplate indie-pop, inoffensive and comfortable as Papa John’s pizza. If you like Camera Obscura, would accept a very less-good Belle & Sebastian or watch 2 Broke Girls, you’d like this band. If you don’t, you’d probably say they were another tragically ordinary outfit who sound no different than the dozens of other acts from their Borough. Hospitality is not a bad band, I just have no intention of ever seeing them again.
My fears were quelled as Here We Go Magic opened with Pigeons’ slowly-simmering “Moon”, successfully transitioning into the “Make Up Your Mind”, one of their new tracks. Via lossy data compression, the repetitive “Mind” sounds like it belongs in a goofy 80’s montage where the protagonists organize a panty raid or upper deck a rival fraternity’s toilet. But live, HWGM transform it into a true jam, and yes I mean that in the Grateful Dead sense. Make no mistake, this little indie rock band was cheesing out. These guys were spinning these three minute pop nuggets into seven-and-a-half minute sprawls.
Personal favorite “Hibernation” was captured as vividly as it was on Pigeons and I was surprised to witness the zestless “I Believe In Action” reveal itself as a funky update of Talking Heads’ “Crosseyed & Painless”. The band’s current single “How Do I Know” was a highlight, as Temple accented this delightful piece of pop confection with ooh-oohing and the rhetorical question of “How do I know if I love you?”
Some duds remained in the set. It would be wise for HWGM to focus on twitchy songs like “Hard To Be Close” and shy away from the ballads. The back-to-back inclusion of snoozers “Alone But Moving” and “Over The Ocean” almost put the night on ice. However, lackluster moments were dissolved when the band switched into the set-closing “Collector”, a krautrock-inspired piece that lends itself well to lengthy soloing and synchronized hand-clapping.
The audience was so hyped from “Collector” that it roared for an encore. I note this because this felt like a rare occasion when the band was legitimately done with no intention of returning for a fauxcore. But of course the band obliged, thanking the District for the warm reception throughout the years and turned out “Land Of Feeling” and a particularly nasty version of fan-favorite “Fangela”.
I was expecting Talking Heads-lite and got instead Diet Phish. Was I disappointed? Absolutely not. I can’t disrespect an act that succeeds in getting their audience mobile, absorbing their kinetic energy only to feed it back to them. Even though they are a tiny band playing in a tiny room on a tiny label, HWGM share something in common with many contemporary jam bands: their recordings may be weak, but they excel in the flesh. Here We Go Magic certainly will never be as successful of Talking Heads, but they owe a debt to David Byrne and his estranged band mates for giving all aspiring art rockers a template of how to properly turn a motherfucker out. Next time, I hope they bring a funk band.