Thursday, August 29, 2013

David Byrne and St Vincent @ Symphony Hall, Wednesday 28th August

When it comes to surprising collaborations new wave polymath David Byrne has previous form. Just take his hook up with Fatboy Slim on the Imelda Marcos musical Here Lies Love. happened. Google it. So joining forces with ex Polyphonic Spree disciple turned quirky solo artist in her own right St Vincent shouldn’t really have come as much of a shock. Listen carefully and you might even pick up some shared lyrical and vocal traits too, it really doesn’t take much imagination to hear Byrne coming up with St Vincent’s 2009 track Laughing With a Mouth Of Blood for instance.

It’s 30 years since Talking Heads’ big commercial breakthrough courtesy of Speaking In Tongues (coincidently St Vincent - aka Annie Clark - was making a bit of a breakthrough of her own around the same time...being born), but despite being over twice her age Byrne (61 years young) looks impressively spritely and fresh up on stage tonight, almost as if the whole collaboration’s breathed new life into him.

After 15 minutes of ambient rainforest sounds (which send a fair few of the predominantly middle aged audience scurrying off to the loo) he and St Vincent come on stage accompanied by an 8 piece brass band. With Byrne’s silver grey locks and St Vincent’s dyed blonde hair they make a cute couple (there’s nothing ‘going on’ as far as I know but clearly there’s a lot of affection and mutual admiration between the pair), kicking off the set with Who, the curiously catchy first single from their album together Love This Giant. An oddball mix of funk and vaguely Middle Eastern sounding vocal breaks from St Vincent it’s a fine example of Byrne’s ability to come up with something that’s undeniably arty and yet (see also pretty much all of Talking Heads’ singles) all at the same time. Like pretty much every track that followed it featured some simple but effective choreography too. Byrne’s always jigged around a bit onstage, perfecting an oddly cool looking form of dad dancing that few white men can pull off. St Vincent’s a nifty mover too, employing a slightly scary tottering backwards and forwards motion that makes her look like a doll on a travellator. Add to this a plain backdrop with some stark but effective lighting casting giant shadows and the show’s got plenty for the eyes as well as the ears to revel in.

Let’s get one thing straight, tonight isn’t the David Byrne show. The set’s a perfectly balanced mix of his solo stuff, Talking Heads numbers, his collaboration with St Vincent and her own (new to most of the audience I’m guessing) material. In fact Byrne often seems to shun the limelight, happy to act as St Vincent’s backing dancer on her tracks, just adding the odd distinctive vocal embellishment here and there. It’s a generous move in some ways but St Vincent deserves the respect. 

From the domestic angst ridden anthem Save Me From What I Want through to the more visceral Marrow, transformed this evening into a bombastic brassathon (so much more powerful than its original synth based version), she’s a revelation. Surrounded by the band lying prostrate on the floor she came across as both vulnerable and powerful (something she does particularly a kitten with a Kalashnikov) at the same time on another of her solo numbers, Cheerleader. That’s a neat trick if you can pull it off. She’s a pretty impressive guitarist too, seemingly as comfortably laying down some fret melting funk as she is playing the gentler, more intricate stuff.

Whilst St Vincent may be new to most Byrne’s output is hard wired into the brains of anyone with ears. Wild Wild Life, Lazy (which sounds particularly good in its brassed up form and gives each member of the 8 piece band the chance to sing a line...bless ‘em), Burning Down The House and show closer Road To Nowhere predictably all (double cliché alert) go down a storm (that’s cliché number one...tick) with St Vincent’s voice the proverbial cherry on the cake (boom...two clichés in one sentence...I’m on fire today).     

Despite these obvious crowd pleasers the Love This Giant tracks more than held their own though, with the vocal harmonies of I Am An Ape, the naggingly catchy chorus of Weekend In Dust (damn that’s some funky shit) and the oddball melting pot of Who in particular  all lodging themselves firmly in your brain and refusing to leave. What strikes you most is that they really do seem to bring the best out of each other, 1 + 1 = 3 as it were, add the brass (an odd concept on paper perhaps but it just works so well) and it’s a grin inducingly irresistible combination. On more than one occasion St Vincent seemingly can’t believe she’s up there and, towards the end of the show, she mused about how her 5 year old self (the first time she can remember hearing Byrne’s music) would have reacted to finding herself on stage with possibly her first and perhaps most significant musical hero. She wasn't the only one who counted herself lucky to be there, as the standing ovation at the end of the main set ably demonstrated. 

Where do they go from here? Will this be one of Byrne’s ‘roads to nowhere’ one offs or is this the start of something really special? Who the hell knows, on previous form I’m guessing it’ll sadly be the former though which makes these shows even more unmissable. Love This Giant? You betcha.

Setlist: Who/Weekend in the Dust/Save Me From What I Want/ Strange Overtones/I Am An Ape/Marrow/This Must Be The Place/The Forest Awakes/Ice Age/Lightning/Wild Wild Life/Cheerleader/Lazy/I Should Watch TV/Northern Lights/The One Who Broke Your Heart/Outside Of Space and Time

Encore 1: Cruel/Burning Down The House

Encore 2: The Party/Road To Nowhere

Photos courtesy of the lovely Wayne Fox

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