By Bob Gendron
David Byrne has about 30 years of experience on St. Vincent, a.k.a. Annie Clark. The gap collapsed Tuesday at a sold-out Chicago Theatre, where the youthful singer/guitarist took the reigns of the duo's 100-minute set. The seemingly improbable collaborators expanded upon their recent "Love This Giant" album with a brass-driven concert encompassing recent material, solo work and a few Talking Heads favorites that drew rousing applause. For better and worse, they largely skirted nostalgia.
Better, because Byrne is always focused on the present. He and Clark didn't simply pay lip service to newer songs such as "The Forest Awakes" and "Weekend in the Dust." They built choreographed movements around them, with nearly every tune involving synchronized actions from an eight-piece horn section. Instrumentalists marched in sequence, simultaneously turned their backs to the audience, bobbed up and down and, at one point, laid flat on the ground. Even as he ceded center-stage focus to Clark, Byrne's proclivity toward performance art revealed itself in visual maneuvers and silhouette-producing lighting schemes.
Unfortunately, however clever and cute the rehearsed animations often distracted attention from the music . While Byrne's exaggerated, robotic dance steps jived with "This Must Be the Place (Naïve Melody)" by recalling the physical joy depicted in 1984's "Stop Making Sense" film, other skits lacked tangible connections to songs. Byrne's frequent role as a harmony singer , and his positioning among the horns, conveyed the feeling he'd assumed the background duties of an accessory cast member in a theatrical play. His wireless microphone, and wind-up-toy-monkey stiffness, exacerbated the impression.
"We didn't choreograph that laugh," said Clark, after Byrne announced he chuckled. Intended as a joke, her statement epitomized the shortcomings of arrangements tethered to a limiting formality. Premeditated gestures and wooden structures conflicted with the eclectic, zany spirit suggested by "I Am An Ape" and "Who"— songs that yearned for Dr. Seuss-like peculiarity but settled for mannered contrast. Similarly, the band's squiggly funk rhythms and nonlinear progressions adhered to restrained flexibility that could've been loosened via heightened interplay or improvisational phrases. The parade of trumpet, tuba and trombone bursts rarely ventured outside the lines.
As it happened, spontaneity and interference fell to Clark. She responded by interrupting pleasantries with brief, jagged guitar solos and fuzz-laden distortion, her body convulsing, feet shuffling and limbs quivering like gelatin. Clark's own fare—the frisky "Marrow," symphonic "Cruel," fiercely independent "Cheerleader"— featured snazzy twists on pop traditions. A theremin duet with Byrne on her "Northern Lights" marked one of the few occasions the pair achieved the liberation alluded to on the awkward "I Should Watch TV ." Too bad the safety net wasn't removed for the duration.