Words and thumbnails pics by Matthew Osborne
As a media assassin you can become a little blasé about killing off celebrities these days, with so many boasting very good reasons to take them out.
I’ve become almost too used to it. I don’t see what I do as wrong; taking out artists who have crossed boundaries of taste and decency to make the world a better place. And not all artists start off that way, but some of their careers take such unfortunate turns it becomes my job to “preserve their legacy”.
However, every once in a while I pick up the phone find myself charged with the job of potentially killing one of my heroes.
David Byrne has been in my life for as long as I can remember, and over the last four years has collaborated with a number of musicians, including Fat Boy Slim, which was awful. But most recently Byrne teamed up with Annie Clarke (aka St Vincent) whom he is now touring the world with despite their album, Love This Giant, being fair to middling at best.
With a solo career seemingly drying up, David Byrne looked like an obvious contender for the musical scrap heap. This is when I get the call; so armed with poison pen and spy (neé Instamatic) camera, I made my way to Birmingham’s Symphony Hall.
Some of my earliest memories involve going somewhere in a car listening to Stop Making Sense, and as time rolled along I’ve taken Talking Heads to my heart; they remain to this day one of my favourite acts. Taking a clean shot at their founder and leader was not going to be easy, and would probably take a few days of pretty serious drinking to get over. Particularly as I had brought my Dad, the man who introduced me to David Byrne, along for support.
But my job was made even more difficult, due to a number of unforeseen factors.
Firstly, when the house lights went down I was hit by the realisation that I’d be mere metres away from a man I had idolised for decades. Added to that, he was not alone. Not only were there six players of various beguiling wind instruments, a drummer and a keyboardist, but also a strikingly blonde young woman – Annie Clarke.
If I was going to make a clean kill now I would have to take all ten of them out, and that would be very messy indeed; so I screwed the top back onto my pen and watched patiently, hoping for a better chance later in the evening.
The concert began with ‘Who’ from Love This Giant, the album and reason that had given me this job. However, it is easy to forget that Byrne is as interested in visual arts as he is in music, and from the first brassy parp of the sousaphone something more than a music recital began to take place.
Byrne and St. Vincent’s ten piece band never stood still for more than a few seconds, with each player guided by some loose choreography that tied everything together whilst giving the illusion of delightfully spontaneous randomness. Byrne’s jerky stage moves have long been revered and aped, but Clarke added a beautiful counterpoint to his gesticulations, gliding to and from her microphone as if she were a figurine on an elaborate Swedish cuckoo clock.
Dance routines were not intricate; one of them involved everyone except Clarke lying down, another involved the band splitting in two, moving to either side of the stage and slowly stepping towards each other. Some moves just involved raising their hands in the air on a queue from the tenor saxophonist. All of this was recreated in elongated shadows which flickered against the simple backdrop, a nod back to Talking Heads’ classic Stop Making Sense film.
As this theatre continued my pen stopped burning a hole in my pocket and my mind strayed away from any assassination attempt. Whether or not I liked Love This Giant did not matter. The songs were played so well, and performed with such imagination and ironic comedy, that they became something more than their album equivalents.
Besides, the set was littered with a fairly healthy dose of both artists’ other material. From St Vincent we were treated to ‘Cheerleader’ and ‘Northern Lights’, both of which benefited from the brassier instrumentation available on this tour.
And from Byrne’s hefty back catalogue came the real delights. His surprising late nineties/early noughties comeback song, ‘Lazy’ worked brilliantly with the brass set up; whilst ‘Wild Wild Life’ from True Stories was an absolute riot, with the band forming a conga line and each member singing a line from the song as they passed by the microphone.
Talking Heads’ ‘This Must Be the Place (Naive Melody)’ gave Byrne a chance to perform some of his trademark moves (which you might have seen on the video for ‘Once in a Lifetime’), albeit with an elderly slant. And whilst Clarke’s dramatic stage posturing seemed natural and well executed, Byrne, with his pencil thin frame filled out in later life, occasionally looked older and tired.
After the band left the stage and the audience thundered for more, the big hitters really came out. Clarke returned and performed her beautiful ‘Cruel’ and then Byrne brought the house down with the appropriately titled ‘Burning Down the House’, which saw many of us leave our civilised seating to race to the front and dance.
The finale came in the form of ‘Road to Nowhere’, a fantastic chance to sing along with the band and get a face full of brass as the various players formed another conga line which intimidated the crowd whenever they swung by stage front.
For me the night was a welcome reminder that Byrne is an artist on every level, and his commitment to an enthralling stage production has not diminished since Talking Heads’ hey-day. I lost my pen, probably during the finale, and didn’t inquire at lost and found. This is one assassination that won’t be taking place.
And Annie Clarke is a perfect foil to Byrne’s eccentricities, finding herself a new fan in me that night. I just hope I don’t get a phone call in five years about her.
For more on Love This Giant, visit http://lovethisgiant.com
For more on David Byrne, visit http://journal.davidbyrne.com/
For more on St Vincent, visit http://www.ilovestvincent.com/
For further information on the Town Hall and Symphony Hall, including full event listings, visit http://www.thsh.co.uk/