David Byrne and St. Vincent played the 5th Avenue Theatre last night as part of City Arts Fest.
Sitting across the aisle from me at the 5th Avenue Theatre last night was a man with a book in his lap. It was white and hefty (far too large to conveniently bring to a concert, at least), and its title was How Music Works. Granted, it may not be sound critical practice to draw inductive conclusions about an entire show from one audience member, but the man’s choice of reading material was all too appropriate, and not just because David Byrne wrote the book. A lot has been made of the similarities between Bryne and St. Vincent that led to their collaboration record, last month’s Love This Giant, but if there’s one overarching one, it’s that both artists make smart pop music. Call it cerebral, self-aware, fussy, or whatever other adjective fits–it’s hard to imagine any element of a David Bryne or St. Vincent song ending up there by accident. It’s much easier, however, to imagine Byrne sitting down and reading a tome about music theory.
On Love This Giant, this penchant for braininess makes Bryne and St. Vincent (guitarist and songwriter Annie Clark) sound detached, both from the listener and each other. They wrote many of the songs over email, and it makes for a hermetic record that plays like a joke you’re not cool enough to understand. But last night, the pair’s performance was everything Love This Giant isn’t: warm, charismatic, and gracious.
Take “I Should Watch TV,” for example. On record, the song’s premise–that the ostensibly city-dwelling narrator needs to watch TV to understand what everyday people are like–comes off as cold and condescending. Live, augmented by a hip-hop beat and massive brass hits, Byrne sounded genuinely curious about what makes people tick. Wearing a white suite, he stood at the side or back of the stage when Clark played her solo material (the songs from 2009’s Actor worked especially well with the unusual, orchestral band setup–a drummer, a synth player, and eight brass/woodwind musicians). Rarely, though, was he not the center of attention, leading the brass players in some marching band-esque horn movements and showing off dance moves that could have come straight out of the “Once in a Lifetime” video.
With a wealth of material to choose from, the set list didn’t disappoint, either. Outside of material from Love This Giant, there were St. Vincent songs, Byrne solo material, and Talking Heads classics, along with some rarities like “Lazy,” a 2002 dance track by British production group X-Press 2 on which Byrne sang vocals. Among all the Talking Heads material–“Burning Down the House,” “This Must Be the Place,” “Road to Nowhere”–it was surprising that the best song of the night was Clark’s “The Party,” a ballad from Actor, which benefited immensely from a spare, haunting horn arrangement. It was another smart move from two artists who’ve made careers out of them.
(Updated at 11 a.m. to reflect that Byrne is the author of How Music Works.)
Weekend in the Dust
Save Me From What I Want
I Am An Ape
This Must Be The Place
Like Humans Do
I Should Watch TV
One Who Broke Your Heart
Outside of Space and Time
Burning Down the House
Road to Nowhere