She & Him’s got nothing on him and her. True, I missed the pairing of Zooey Deschanel & M. Ward at South by Southwest, but a week out from the Austin City Limits Music Festival (now almost as chaotic as SXSW), the best headlining set may have already occurred last night at Bass Concert Hall – with David Byrne and St. Vincent burning down the house.
Not that the pair are playing ACL – although one of the festival's most memorable moments remains St. Vincent bleeding on her guitar at the 2007gathering – but in stark contrast to Dead Can Dance last month at the Moody and the girl-group flirtatiousness of She & Him, the former Talking Heads frontman and Ms. Annie Clark trade on a May/December chemistry of artistic wonderment.
As tightly choreographed as a dance recital or an off-off-Broadway musical, the nearly two-hour concert still allowed Byrne moments of rapt observation as his Dallas-reared show counterpart skittered across the stage in high heels with her Angus Young guitar – a cherry-red Gibson SG – strapped across her. In Clark’s first encore anecdote of discovering Byrne through Revenge of the Nerds at age three, her awe exceeded his by only a decade or two.
Crickets on the P.A. complimented the brass mine field onstage 10 minutes before showtime, one tuba, two trombones, three saxophones all strategically laid out on the naked stage set-up, a trumpet, flute, and French horn also in and amongst Byrne’s acoustic guitar and Clark’s electric. At some dozen pieces, St. Byrne’s backers weren’t a rock band augmented with horns. They were a brass band with a drummer, keyboards, and no bassist.
And no one just stood there. They parted like the Red Sea, snaked multiple conga lines, and moved in a square dance formality with all the vigor of a children's matinee for Hans Christian Anderson’s The Emperor’s New Clothes. Byrne put the brassy chorus through most of the paces as allowed him by the freedom of his chordless microphone. Clark, somewhat anchored to her mic stand and guitar pedals, acted as first ballerina.
Libretto for this Twelfth Night originates from the duo’s spellbound new Love This Giant, which proved the backbone of the 90-minute main set. “Who” and “Weekend in the Dust” opened the performance as they do the disc – avant-garde oddball come rhythmic savant meets eclectic/electric muse – and in the three spot cracked the “Ice Age” with Clark’s crystalline songcraft and delivery. Byrne countered with new missing link “I Am an Ape,” lithe with Heads-like quirk.
Back and forth they went, him (“Like Humans Do”) and her (“Marrow”), with his occasional audience capitulation thrown in for best measure (“This Must Be the Place”). Stirring Love This Giant closer “Outside of Space and Time” ended the main portion, and both encores began with (“Cruel”) her and ended in his past, “Burning Down the House” and “Road to Nowhere,” for which a full house danced in the aisles and balconies.
Him: inspired, reinvigorated. Her: indie rock’s new leading lady. David Byrne & St. Vincent together: “Outside of Space and Time.”