By Daniel Cronin
Before the house lights had a chance to dim and give way to the legendary David Byrne and visionary alt-rock It Girl St. Vincent (Annie Clark), the atmosphere inside the Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall Thursday, October 18 was already an electric shudder. After two-and-a-half hours of music—including three encores—a sold-out crowd was as vehement in its adoration as when the evening’s first brassy notes were blown. To put it simply, this performance was easily one of the most unique, evocative and inventive sets of music this reporter’s had the pleasure of viewing.
But as with most things Byrne, or Clark—or any spectacle that must accommodate eight brass players, a drummer and a keyboardist—the audience-artist symbiosis was no happy accident.
A honk of insistent saxophones rang in the show, ushering in “Who”—the lead single from Byrne and Clark’s collaborative effort Love This Giant—amidst synchronized stage lights, the impressive sprawl of a flurry of horns and triggered drum beats, with Byrne and Clark negotiating guitar lines in and out of the rhythm. The next song, and the album’s second track, “Weekend in the Dust,” was equally as impressive live, allowing little acoustic vacuity, and instead jamming every possible corner of sonic real estate with crafty art-funk and global pop-rock.
Between songs, the stage lights were dimmed completely to allow the massive horn section, as well as Byrne and Clark, to occupy new positions on the stage, in seemingly geometric sorts of free associative choreography. Horn players would stand across the stage in equal numbers toward the other while Byrne exhibited his quirky tics and improvised dance steps, then sporadically (or not?) maneuver throughout the stage based on cues in the music like a game of Red Rover. During songs where Byrne’s guitar playing wasn’t needed, he’d line up next to the trombonist or trumpeter and impart an eccentric groove, mimicking the two-step forward-dip of the brass line. These moments were especially important given Clark’s influence on the collection of songs on Love This Giant.
When Clark was allowed to shine, Byrne’s anonymity amongst the rest of the band was crucial, leading songs like the Clark-led “The Forest Awakes” to achieve a more focused nuance between the duo’s talents. The same strategy was employed during performances of Clark’s own songs, of which Strange Mercy’s “Cheerleader” took on an even more ghoulish ambiance, bursting with dark melodic sensibilities amplified all the more by the emotive presence of tubas and sax. Her sultry vocals were perhaps best showcased on the darkly catchy (almost Madonna-like) “Optimist,” with its relaxing chorus of “how it is is how it ought to be”—as apt and meta a summation for the Byrnes-Clark tandem as could be hoped for.
Interplay between Byrne and Clark was minimal, save for quick glances of admiration for a lyric, or during mirror-like marionette dance ad-lib, which made their more direct interactions after the first encore all the more special.
Within proximity to head Talking Head Byrne, Clark’s encore of “Cruel” embodied a more worldly kind of synth-rock flamboyance. And, vice versa, Byrne’s broad tastes were tempered well by Clark on more stoic encore selections like thePhilip Glass song (lyrics written by Byrne) “Open the Kingdom,” which galvanized a still-standing crowd into a starry-eyed trance. Love This Giant’s “I Should Watch TV” articulated an oddly hypnotic social commentary, opining on the deficiencies in mass media, and was another crescendoing fan favorite. This song, as with “Who,” appears to benefit from tension-building vocal refrains, most likely the byproduct of Clark’s strengths in dynamics and stressing melodies.
Byrne upped the ante by performing “Burning Down the House” during the first encore, then following up during the second with a thoroughly fantastic, audience-uniting performance of “Road to Nowhere.” During the song, the entire ensemble marched along in a makeshift, goofy conga line around the perimeter of the stage. It was more apparent than ever, here, that this was something unifying—a collaborative grand slam, and a truly special evening of music as performance art.
This was no cash-cow relevancy barometer for Byrne; no stretch for seminal cred for Clark. A concert of this caliber doesn’t come along but once in a long while. What could have been a completely hygienic stage show (what do you do with eight brass players?!), with Byrne and Clark as reluctant maestros, was instead a visual and aural exercise in the fluidity of music, the bridging of genres, and the magic of imagination.