David Byrne and St. Vincent prove the vitality of live music

David Byrne and St. Vincent in performance at the Tower Theater in Upper Darby.
David Byrne and St. Vincent in performance at the Tower Theater in Upper Darby. (ANDY SHELTER / For The Inquirer)
Posted: September 30, 2012

What's the big deal about going to see live music, anyway?

Rather than plunk down a significant portion of this week's paycheck to watch dudes make scrunched-up faces while they play guitar, or rappers grab their crotches to keep their trousers from falling down, wouldn't it be more pleasurable to just digest pre-recorded sounds in the comfort of your own comfy chair?

I'm being partly facetious, of course. Thrills are still to be had from revelations found only in live performance, when musicians and their instruments (and machines) interact with one another - and the audience - in real time. Or at least the music industry desperately hopes so, because people still seem willing to pay for live shows, in contrast to their reluctance to pony up for pre-recorded sounds.

These philosophical ponderings have been elicited by David Byrne and St. Vincent's extraordinary, eye-opening show at the Tower Theater in Upper Darby on Thursday in support of the analytically arty duo's new collaborative album, Love This Giant.

So what was so special and refreshing about the performance that made most of the recent live shows I've seen seem mundane in comparison?

For starters, the May-December helpmates - St. Vincent is guitarist-singer Annie Clark, who turned 30 on Friday; Byrne is 60 - put together a crisp hour-and-45-minute show that cannily blended songs they've written together with a sharp selection of their individual material. It kicked off with the baritone-sax-honking single "Who" and closed out with Talking Heads' 1985 hit "Road to Nowhere."

And then there was the element of surprise. Love This Giant is a bold and brassy album that underplays Clark's considerable guitar-shredding skills to make room for a robust brass section. Still, it was a bit jaw-dropping to see that the band that walked out on the Tower stage included not one, not two, but eight horn players. Eight!

That brass octet, which included members of Indian bhangra funk band Red Baraat and the all-female French horn ensemble Genghis Barbie, was joined only by Byrne and Clark and a drummer and keyboard player.

The show looked, as well as sounded, great. The porcelain-skinned Clark, in heels and a sleeveless purple dress, and Byrne, with his white shock of hair matching a straitjacketlike vest and two-tone shoes, have said their work together has been truly collaborative. She introduced him as "our candy striper and conductor," however, and it's probably safe to assume that the former Rhode Island School of Design Renaissance man - who was scheduled to talk at the Free Library on Friday night about his new book, How Music Works - had a good deal to do with the show's visual presentation.

Which was dazzling. There were no real gimmicks, no pyrotechnics or video screens. Clark usually sang into her mike at stage center, while Byrne used one of those annoying headset mikes and moved about like a mime or bobbed up and down like a mechanical bird. Meantime, the ensemble made creative use of space, playing while prone on the floor one minute, moving in formation as though in a Busby Berkeley musical the next, and marching mournfully during St. Vincent's beautifully melancholy "The Party."

Clark - who said she first heard Byrne's music in the movie Revenge of the Nerds when she was 4 - was closer in age to the typical audience member than was Byrne. But there's clearly no generation gap when it comes to ardent enthusiasm for Talking Heads.

The show peaked perfectly with the ascending riff of St. Vincent's "Cruel" running into the Heads' stomping "Burning Down the House." It was a reminder that should Byrne ever decide to give up on fruitful collaborations like the one that yielded Love This Giant, there's a huge audience waiting for him to reunite his old band.


Contact Dan DeLuca at 215-854-5628, deluca@phillynews.com, or follow on Twitter @delucadan. Read his blog, "In the Mix,"

at www.philly.com/inthemix.

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