JAM Magazine Concert Reviews

October 11, 2012
Arlington Theater
Santa Barbara, CA USA
Review by L. Paul Mann
Photos by L. Paul Mann

David Byrne

Constantly Reinvented Himself

David Byrne, the former fiery front man of Rock And Roll Hall of Famer inductees The Talking Heads, has constantly reinvented himself throughout his musical career.

He first gained a bit of notoriety in 1979 as the quirky front man with the unusual vocal affectations. The Talking Heads were on the road with the B-52's opening for them touring behind their now epic Fear of Music album. It spawned one of their greatest hits, "Life During Wartime."

Byrne's appearance with the band, at the Arlington Theater in Santa Barbara in late September of that year, may have been one of the best live shows I have witnessed at the venue in the last 33 years. The band's sound had clearly evolved from their previous showing, More Songs about Buildings and Food. David Byrne's awkward physical and vocal expressions on stage were often mimicked by the crowd in the form of dancing. That evening, I was fortunate to witness the true dawning of the New Wave movement that would rock the industry for years to come.

But that was yesterday.

Since the demise of that historic group, Byrne has embarked on a solo career, testing the waters in a dizzying array of musical genres. His latest collaboration features singer-guitarist Annie Erin Clark, better known by her stage moniker St. Vincent, on his newest album Love This Giant.

Clark began her professional music career as part of the massive line-up of in the experimental pop group Polyphonic Spree. The group blended a choir, rock band and classical instruments into a modern version of classic sixties bands like the Fifth Dimension. The duo incorporated the skills of a variety of musicians into their body of work, and enlisted producer John Congleton to bring those creations to life. Congleton, by the way, produced the last Polyphonic Spree album, The Fragile Army. Not surprisingly, Love This Giant exhibits many elements that made St. Vincent's former group so unique, including an array of classical horned instruments.

The concert at the Arlington Theater featured an array of horn players, eight persons strong. They were supplemented by a drummer and percussionist / keyboard player. Meanwhile Byrne and St. Vincent fronted the group, swapping and sharing the lead vocal role throughout the evening. Amazingly, the now 60-year old Byrne exhibited the same overt awkwardness and intense glare that he had on the same stage thirty three years prior. His hair had turned ghostly white, and there was a bit of a middle age paunch, but the voice, that ever familiar quirky voice was still there.

The nearly two hour set featured 10 of the twelve tracks from the new album, three Talking Head covers, and six songs from Clark's last two solo albums, 2011's Strange Mercy and the 2009 release Actor. Interestingly enough, the musicians on stage created a marching band sound reminiscent of Fleetwood Mac's Tusk album, with the same grandeur displayed on that 1979 masterpiece. However, with Byrnes' eccentric singing style combined with St. Vincent's raw plaintive wailing and guitar playing, the performance came off with a fresh new sound unique to the group.

At times, you would have thought you were at a Broadway show. Dance routines were incorporated into nearly every song. The talented musicians were all introduced near the end of the set, with lengthy explanations of all of their side projects. Although the new music was well received by the crowd, it was the addition of Talking Heads classics like "Burning Down the House" and "On The Road To Nowhere" that whipped many in the crowd into a real dancing frenzy. Not to be outdone by her Hall of Fame partner, St Vincent had her own set of fans in attendance as well. They embraced the group's versions of her solo material, including the breakout single "Cheerleader" from Strange Mercy.

It's tough to leave one's past you're so identified with, but a quarter of a century later, David Byrne has done an admirable job in doing just that. He's clearly evolved as a consummate artist, and to that extent, has brought several people along for the ride. Tonight, this was no party, this was no disco, and there certainly wasn't any fooling around. The mercurial singer had done it once again, with a little help from his friends.