On Thursday, Oct. 11, the Arlington Theatre was host to two powerful performers for an Arts & Lectures event. Talking Heads’ frontman David Byrne and indie art rock goddess St. Vincent (a.k.a. Annie Clark) teamed up to present nearly 2,000 audience members the concert of a lifetime.
A soundtrack consisting first of rain and then of chirping birds, along with washed-out spotlights on stage that almost looked like mist, created a calm outdoor ambience. The Arlington seemed like the perfect venue for it, with its high, Hogwarts Great Hall-esque ceilings; it really felt as if we were all sitting under a dark night sky. The simple stage — two raised platforms on opposite sides for drums and keyboard, plus a few boxes adorned with lights sitting on the ground towards the back — was accentuated with beautiful brass instruments. The instruments were gently laid on the floor and basked in the misty light, hinting at the meticulously crafted and artful show that was soon to come.
Finally, a dozen sharply-dressed people marched out on stage. Byrne, in black dress pants and a white dinner jacket, and Clark, in a tight, shiny mini-dress, made their way to the center of the stage. Byrne addressed the audience briefly: “Welcome to our little village. We have lived here for 500 years. Our traditions remain unchanged. We will show them to you tonight.”
The first song began with a bang. The duo recently made a video for the same song, “Who,” which is off their collaborative album Love This Giant. The video is an entertaining narrative that features Byrne and Clark hypnotizing each other and dancing in odd and fascinating ways.
Though I could not shake the weird “Twin Peaks”’ Leland Palmer vibe I got from Byrne in the video, their live performance left nothing to be missed. Clark’s unusual vocals played a key part in the song, as they did in most of the other songs throughout the evening. However, the most entertaining aspect of the performance was the twelve-person band’s impeccable choreography. The brass players’ subtle movements added so much to the show, including at the end of the first song when all band members faced away from the audience with the single’s abrupt end.
The choreography throughout the night was impressive and poignant. Any choreography is inherently artificial and the subtle repetitions of movement by Byrne, St. Vincent and their band called attention to that artificiality in the same way that experimental films call attention to the artificiality of the Hollywood film model.
When he was not singing or playing an instrument, Byrne reverted to bopping up and down rhythmically. He dedicated himself to following through all of his (often humorous) movements and seemed to exist entirely in the moment. Overall, the choreography screamed: “You are at a rock show. You are here to have fun. We are here to entertain you. Go with it.”
The lights were another fantastic aspect of the show. At times they were flashy and delirium inducing, as if David Lynch had in fact directed them (now I’m thinking of the druggy dancing scene in the “Twin Peaks” prequel, Fire Walk With Me; it’s the only good thing about the movie aside from David Bowie’s cameo). Each lighting arrangement was calculated and fit each song.
For St. Vincent’s “Marrow,” a turquoise blue light highlighted Clark in the center of the stage; the rest of the band split into two groups on opposite sides and slowly swayed back and forth; Clark moved as if she were being gently pulled between them. The effect was beautiful, and the song’s tempo kicked up fairly quickly with bouncy brass tones so the audience was not left feeling bored for a moment.
About halfway through the set, it was time for an old hit of Byrne’s to shine: the jovial tones of “This Must Be the Place (Naive Melody)” started up and with a cheer as large portions of the crowd leapt to their feet until at last everyone stood, honoring the Talking Heads classic.
Now, this is a song I have listened to at least a hundred times; it’s a song I’ve screamed — “HIIIIII-YOOOOOH, I GOT PLENTY OF TIME!” — along with in my car — by myself and with others. I know it will be involved in my wedding someday — it’s that kind of song. Anyway, I think I was almost too shocked to fully appreciate the moment: Byrne stepped up to sing “I can’t tell one from the other / Did I find you, or you find me? / There was a time, before we were born / If someone asks, this is where I’ll be … where I’ll be.”
As exciting as the show was for me purely as a young woman who grew up listening to the Talking Heads, what makes this tour unique is the collaboration between Byrne and Clark. The two have incredible musical chemistry: in the next song, “The Forest Awakes” (off of Love This Giant, the two made their way to the front of the stage and basically conversed using their guitars. In St. Vincent’s “Northern Lights,” the two converged around a theremin, an instrument played with hand gestures, and karate-chopped at each other to create crazy sounds. Together, they are simultaneously sweet and kick-ass.
Byrne’s art rock sensibilities and quirky stage presence fits nicely with Clark’s unusual songwriting choices and singing style. The show proved that when experimental musicians have access to a full band of talented instrumentalists, incredible things can occur.
Another beautiful moment in the show came towards the end when each band member, save for the drummer, the keyboardist and Clark, lay down on the stage with their instruments. Clark stood in a dark green glow and performed the St. Vincent hit “Cheerleader.” Band members raised themselves slightly but still played from the floor. The band’s poses mimicked the song’s video, in which Clark is a fifty-foot tall woman lying down in a museum with people watching her. The powerful, catchy song was a highlight of the show, and the enactment of it seemed to be part of the ongoing commentary about artificiality in music performance.
The show ended with the band in a line across the front of the stage playing a sentimental track that made great use of their talented instrumentalists; it was a nice end. However, shortly after they departed, they were called back in with great applause for an encore. They played St. Vincent’s “Cruel,” wherein the whole band harmonized to create the backing track of “Bodies, can’t you see what everybody wants from you?”
That was followed up with the Talking Heads’ “Burning Down the House.” Once again the audience rose. We danced and sang with fervor. By the end of it, I think we were all mostly satisfied, but we continued to clap and cheer and hope that the duo would return on stage for a second encore. It took a long while, but finally one by one, the band members ended up back on stage and began playing St. Vincent’s “The Party” until Clark appeared and began singing its clever lyrics. The song broke into a waltz, during which everyone (appropriately) waltzed in small circles by themselves, which created a wonderfully eerie atmosphere.
Eventually Byrne, too, waltz-walked into the scene and the song ended. The lights brightened and everyone gathered to harmonize the intro to “Road to Nowhere” by the Talking Heads, a sort of spoken memorial to the show we had just witnessed and its impending end. The beat kicked back up and the band paraded around the stage in a circle while singing and playing the tune. It was the perfect end to an amazing, theatrical evening: happy and warm, with each band member playing their instruments offstage until it was over.