Anyone who’s seen the Talking Heads’ phenomenal concert film ‘Stop Making Sense’ knows that David Byrne does not fuck around when it comes to live shows. He doesn’t look at them as an extension or a promotional vehicle for a studio record but as a distinctive art form. That was evident at his recent performance with St. Vincent, with every moment seeming directly planned for the stage at Reykjavík’s Háskólabíó.
When I arrived, beams of light were aimed at instruments that had been meticulously placed on the stage floor, ready for the nine-person brass band that marched in and picked them up—the bassoon, trumpet, woodwind, tuba, various nationalities of horns and others that I can’t name. There was also a keyboardist and a drummer, but no bassist (but who needs a bass when you have a tuba anyway?).
Enter The Dynamic Duo
Then the dynamic duo greeted the audience, David Byrne with his silky white hair, wearing a white suit, and the gorgeous Annie Clark, aka St. Vincent. Byrne noted that the last time he and Clark were in Iceland, they both had dark hair, but that had now changed but for different reasons.
They started with the bouncy, swinging brass hook from “Who,” the first song from ‘Love This Giant,’ their excellent collaborative album released last year. Byrne’s voice has lost none of its charming tension over the years and Clark’s cooing matched it well as they playfully traded lines over some thick horn riffs.
Right from the get-go you could see that this was not a still concert with dull session players. They played most of the songs from ‘Love This Giant’ and the left-field brass oriented pop was illuminated by the energetic band’s performance. The multi-gender/racial brass section were always moving around, doing choreographed dance routines, walking in circles around the singers, or splitting up into two teams, standing on each side of the stage like they were in a brass-off.
There was never a dull moment on the stage and the two singers were glowing with charisma. A master of the slightly off-kilter dance, David Byrne did the mime to a sublime take on the Talking Heads classic, “This Must Be The Place,” and he did a step dance to another.
Clark’s doll-like dance routines were adorable and her distinctive guitar playing dominated songs and sometimes transmuted into ear-splitting solos. Her solo material, like “Cheerleader,” when all the brass players lay scattered on the ground like they were relaxing or taking a nap while they were blowing their horns, were some of the most memorable.
There was no clash of egos though, with each of them stepping off to the sidelines and dancing beside the brass players during the other’s solo performance. The lighting was also top notch, often projecting red and black shadow figures of the band members onto the wall, which could only be described as Kraftwerk-esque.
Encore Upon Encore
Although obviously planned and choreographed, the setup never felt forced or strained. Byrne and Clark shared stories of mutual admiration and playful banter between songs and Byrne even dedicated one song to the Higgs particle. And at one point, a theremin was brought to the stage and the pair played it by throwing punches and kicks in each other’s direction with the instrument in the middle.
After about 90 minutes they left the stage, but received a standing ovation and came back to perform St. Vincent’s “Cruel” before diving into crowd pleaser “Burning Down The House,” which immediately had people out of their seats and dancing.
Already standing and still hungry for more, the crowd got them to do a second encore that ended with “Road To Nowhere,” whose marching rhythm was perfectly suited for the large brass section. The whole thing was as much visual arts as music and a celebration of all things quirky, eccentric and stylish.