by Chris Familton
Take a musical icon who has made a career out of balancing art and popular music, combine him with a quirky indie songstress and you have a fascinating meeting of age, gender and artistic creativity. David Byrne & St Vincent released their album Love This Giant last year and received much praise for their translation of the songs from record to stage, making their appearance at this year’s Sydney Festival one of the ‘hot picks’ – as they say in the biz.
On arrival we were greeted with a stage haphazardly littered with all manner of brass instruments, a drum kit and keyboards. The air was full of the sound of loud chirping and tweeting birds, the purpose of which never became clear but it signaled that the performance was going to be richly imbued with arthouse aesthetics, a creatively constructed mood.
Opening with Who, the first track on the album, the immediate impact of the horns was a physical one. Dynamic, uber-tight and covering the full sonic spectrum these weren’t instruments intended to add mere accents and colour to the songs, they were the songs – replacing percussion, bass and most of the time providing their main melodic impetus. The result was an exhilarating fusion of New Orleans funk, low-slung hip hop and art pop. Musical pop art in its purest sense. What also quickly became apparent was the dismantling of the traditional horn line standing at the rear or side of the stage, static and devoid of personality. These players had been given the task of both faultlessly playing the songs (which they did) and performing choreographed movements around the stage. The result definitely enhanced the performance by giving it motion and treating the stage as a complete spatial palette rather than just a band playing to a crowd.
Byrne and St. Vincent generally remained front and centre as they wove most of the album and selected highlights from their own catalogues into the ninety minute show. As is always the hope with a band’s live performance, everything sounded much better live than on record. It was as if the songs had come to life like characters leaping from a page. Byrne is still the definitive quirky frontman, both the consummate performer and the slightly behind the pace, middle aged man trying to keep up in an aerobic class. That is a central part of his charm and why he has become the enigma he is. Vocally his voice is still superb, full of range and those sliding notes he utilises so well. St Vincent on the other hand is a much tighter performer, possibly more self-aware but not to the extent that it hinders her. She shimmied about via tiny stuttering footsteps and marionette movements all the while playing some standout guitar solos. She started off sounding slightly off, missing a few notes and sounding weaker in voice than Byrne but after a few songs she hit her stride and never looked back.
Of the album tracks, I Should Watch TV and a beautiful rendition of Outside Of Space And Time rose above as real highlights but the crowd unsurprisingly reacted the strongest to versions of some of Byrnes finest moments. This Must Be The Place (Naive Melody) was faithfully and gorgeously rendered while Lazy and the ‘hits’ Burning Down The House and Road To Nowhere were perfectly suited to the horn arrangements and had many on their feet nostalgically enjoying the present moment. Not to be outdone, St. Vincent delivered wonderful takes on her songs Cheerleader and The Party.
This show took an album that didn’t always work and successfully transformed it into a living, breathing piece of musical theatre that felt like a fresh take on contemporary music performance, full of personality, quirk, intelligence and humour.
this review was first published on Fasterlouder