By Ben Wener
You certainly notice right away the multitude of horns that punch up Love This Giant, the dizzying new result of a slow-soldered mind-meld between legendary innovator David Byrne and experimental upstart Annie Clark, who does business as St. Vincent. The expansive brass band gathered for the duo’s project announces itself from the get-go with introductory single “Who,” spitting forth the first of an array of squiggly riffs that 45 minutes later has run the gamut from heady Afropop and feverish JBs funk to mood-yoking motifs à la Gil Evans.
Yet regardless of how dominant they may seem on record – and even more so when you witness Byrne & Clark & Co. in concert, like their superb performance Friday night at Segerstrom Center for the Arts in Costa Mesa, which replayed tonight at the Greek Theatre – you can just as easily get caught up by how the album’s other forces sinuously helix with those horns into one multifaceted strand.
Those forces, to be exact: 1) Byrne, that restless musicologist, never less than intriguing since parting from Talking Heads at the end of the ’80s, yet whose imagistic, philosophizing pop has rarely been so sublime and stately as it has been lately. 2) Clark, the curly-haired wisp from Manhattan, who via three remarkable St. Vincent discs (Marry Me, Actor and Strange Mercy) has emerged as one of today’s most inventive and important new talents. And 3) drum programmer John Congleton, whose various stuttered patterns prove essential to making this synthesis so smooth.
Byrne (60) and Clark (30) are naturals together, like an eccentric, visionary godfather and his eclectic, virtuoso niece. You can feel their creative camaraderie even in Love This Giant’s iciest moments, but it was even more palpable in the gracious glances and gestures they gave one another inside the opulent Renée and Henry Segerstrom Concert Hall, a three-tiered jewel rarely used for amplified performances like this. Their voices are such a perfect blend of chilly and warm, futurism and earthiness, it’s a wonder they aren’t biologically related.
But Congleton’s beats, every bit as textured and syncopated as the adorning horns he helps propel, provides just as much punctuation to these organically developed tales of nature vs. technology, inner peace vs. outer cataclysm. Byrne believes every strain of it intertwines into something distinctly new. I think he might be right.
What’s arguably even more daring an enterprise, however, is what he and Clark achieve with this fusion on stage – and with almost entirely different musicians from those who appear on the album.
Though it’s a minimalist, somewhat black-and-white night filled with stark shadows and martial choreography, people keep coming out of performances with minds blown because they don’t often see such invigorating imagination at work, even in these supposedly more sophisticated times of so many other duos (the xx, the Kills, Sleigh Bells, Crystal Castles) concocting engulfing sounds out of sparse situations.
This, though, is an altogether more hypnotic experience, not least because of the mesmerizing eight-piece brass and woodwind ensemble that powers the group with layers of sweetly cacophonous trombone and alto sax, effective interjections of French horn and flugelhorn, all anchored by some of the heartiest Sousaphone blowing outside of New Orleans. There’s no electric bass involved, just those impressive horns, a keyboardist and drummer kept clear to the corners, and whatever guitars are added by Byrne (usually on acoustic) and Clark, whose shards of frantic, distorted leads on her Gibson SG are becoming a signature all their own.
“Hello, people of Orange,” Byrne deadpanned at the outset of what I believe is his first appearance in O.C. since his 1997 tour behind his fourth post-Heads effort Feelings, which played San Juan Capistrano’s Coach House.
There wasn’t a great deal of chatter beyond that remark, apart from encouraging the audience to check out the merch table – “We have a veritable Walmart of goods out there,” including wares from the horn section’s many other projects – and a few song introductions, thoughtfully tacked on for two of the evening’s standouts.
Most bracing of all in this 22-tune set was “I Should Watch TV,” a work of nonfiction, Byrne insisted, before intensely delivering the vocal, egging on the encircled group while Clark thrashed away. Almost as gripping was the optimistic farewell of “Outside Space and Time,” dedicated to the Higgs-Boson particle. “(It’s) very, very, very small,” he pointed out, “but without it, where would we be?”
Much of the show, though, consisted of Byrne (more so than Clark) serving as Simon Says figure to the horn players, parrying with them in slowly rotating step-step-step formations or, in the case of Clark’s “Cheerleader,” lying about the stage in odd positions, the room bathed in orange lights. Byrne, having removed his black suit coat, stayed on his side throughout that piece, staring at the front rows, rising slightly only in the chorus, offering supportive cries – a wonderfully creepy enhancement.
Indeed, though live-wire Clark in a tight purple mini-dress is plenty compelling viewing, especially when she gives over to the groove and involuntarily flexes her fast-footed James Brown wiggle, it’s Byrne who continues to be such a magnetically strange presence. His demeanor is so ingrained now that all it took sometimes to elate the crowd was for him to strike poses – like a stoic surfer or a bowler atop a trophy, or a marionette doing softshoe, or a “Once in a Lifetime”-esque air-divider of imaginary what-not. Most of that quirk was endearingly indulged at the start of “This Must Be the Place (Naïve Melody)” a third into the show.
That was one of three Talking Heads songs – along with crowd-rousing renditions of “Burning Down the House” and “Road to Nowhere” – that this group performed with remarkable fidelity, all the more stunning considering how many familiar keyboard parts were transposed to horn lines without the slightest loss in believability.
The rest of the set broke down with measured equality: 10 of 12 fromLove This Giant plus six choices apiece from their respective careers, all of which felt faithful to their source material yet also highly enriched. “Lazy,” for instance, a clever character commentary Byrne cut in 2002 with the electronic outfit X-Press 2 became an undulating workout worthy of the Heads at their best; Clark’s “Northern Lights” (capped by a wild sorcerer's duel on Theremin opposite Byrne) and the cinematic “Cruel” were opened up in ways you wouldn’t think such tightly controlled machines could allow.
Most impressive of all is how seamless it all seemed, as if everything had been part of the same catalog for decades, refined into performance-art chic. It’s rare that such star-crossed collaborations turn out so well on record; it’s another level of scarcity to find one that adapts so strikingly for the stage. This marvelous partnership feels like it was fated. I only hope it doesn’t end here.
Setlist: David Byrne & St. Vincent at the Renée and Henry Segerstrom Concert Hall, Oct. 12, 2012
Main set: Who / Weekend in the Desert / Save Me from What I Want (St. Vincent song) / Strange Overtones (Byrne & Brian Eno song) / I Am an Ape / Marrow (St. Vincent song) / This Must Be the Place (Naïve Melody) (Talking Heads song) / The Forest Awakes / Optimist / Like Humans Do (Byrne song) / Lightning / Lazarus / Cheerleader (St. Vincent song) / Lazy (Byrne & X-Press 2 song) / I Should Watch TV / Northern Lights (St. Vincent song) / The One Who Broke Your Heart / Outside of Space and Time
First encore: Cruel (St. Vincent song) / Burning Down the House (Talking Heads song)
Second encore: The Party (St. Vincent song) / Road to Nowhere (Talking Heads song)