David Byrne & St. Vincent at the Chicago Theatre | Photos and review
“Only playing new, unfamiliar stuff can alienate an audience,” admits David Byrne in his new book How Music Works. “I know, I’ve done it.” Consider, then, Byrne’s collaboration with Annie Clark (aka St. Vincent) an inspired bit of cover. Love This Giant allows Byrne to be Byrne without having to be entirely like Byrne. The album affords a certain freedom just as the increasingly popular Clark enables it.
Byrne and Clark share equal credit on Love This Giant, but make no mistake: The stakes are slightly higher for an artist of Byrne’s status. He’s the one with a long, influential history of recording, touring and performing. He’s the one with expectations. So it was nice to see Byrne play down those expectations and take advantage of his tour with Clark by embracing his role as a supporting player and spectator in his own show, oftentimes just another participant in a heavily (but not stiflingly) choreographed pageant more than willing to cede the spotlight when it suited the set.
Indeed, the sold-out Chicago Theatre show was choreographed in every sense, not just the modest but effective dancing of Byrne, Clark and the band (an unusual configuration of keyboards, drums and a seven-piece brass and woodwind section, in addition to the principals) but the way their two very different catalogs were balanced. There was, of course, a large emphasis placed on Love This Giant, with songs such as “I am an Ape” and “Optimist” showcases for the surprisingly sympatico way the two very different singers and performers work together. Then there were a smattering of Byrne solo songs, including his lovely Eno collab “Strange Overtones” (its synth solo covered by Clark’s guitar), “Like Humans Do” and “Lazy,” each adapted for this particular, peculiar format.
And then there were St. Vincent songs like “Marrow,” “Cheerleader,” “Cruel” and “Northern Lights” that found a mostly guitar-free Byrne happily sidelined by Clark’s singing and fuzzed-out soloing. A favorite choreographed move featured Byrne and the horns slowly closing in on Clark, who by and large stood at a microphone center stage while the rest of the musicians orbited, marched and danced around her. Byrne can coast on his legacy, even if he spends much of his energy exploring new ideas and expanding his range. But Clark and St. Vincent are still cresting, and her performance this night underscored the weird power of last year’s Strange Mercy, even when played for a crowd perhaps not entirely familiar with her work but who no doubt left as impressed as Byrne.
If there’s a downside to choreography it’s that it cuts down on spontaneity. After something in the crowd made Byrne chuckle, Clark quipped that “we didn’t choreograph laughter.” Of course, the hardest bit of choreography likely came down to just which Talking Heads songs would inevitably be played, and where they would be placed in the setlist. “This Must Be the Place (Naive Melody)” came first, featuring its various blips and bloops adapted for brass and bringing the sitting crowd to its feet, where it stayed for the rest of the night. “Burning Down the House” came much later, with predictable results. And then Byrne and Clark closed with “Road to Nowhere,” from the non-touring era of the Talking Heads, which made strong use of the horns as it erased the remnants of discordant sounds, odd melodies and tricky rhythms that marked the bulk of the preceding set, offering instead feel-good nostalgia tempered by the fact that Byrne has always been exceptionally judicious when mining his own past.
If Byrne often appeared comfortably peripheral to Clark’s magnetic presence, the Talking Heads songs offered Clark a chance to play fan herself, following Byrne’s lead and sometimes putting her own mark on his iconic songs but largely letting the music speak for itself. Byrne might not shrink from filling a set with new stuff, but it must serve as some comfort to him and his bandmates that he’s got a few dozen ways to bring wandering minds instantly back.