Friday, 30 August 2013

David Byrne & St. Vincent @ Birmingham Symphony Hall, 28/08/13

This week, I took a trip down to the Birmingham Symphony Hall to see David Byrne play - since I've moved out to the countryside, every gig is a decent distance away, but that means that I get to go to a hotel and turn each gig night into an 'experience' - it's expensive, but it makes every event into something a bit more unique. Famed solo avant-guardian and lead singer of the '70s band Talking Heads, Byrne's currently touring a new record that he produced with St. Vincent (A.K.A. Annie Clark), an experimental artist in her own right.

A couple of years ago, I went with my friend to see This Must Be The Place, a rather aimless film starring Sean Penn and David Byrne. It launched my friend into a protracted obsession with Byrne, whose richly varied musical career is still delighting her now - from slightly unnerving punk track 'Psycho Killer' to chart-pop sensation 'Lazy', Byrne has written something in almost every genre in the Western world, so I can understand why he'd retain amazement for so long. On Love This Giant, his release with St. Vincent, he draws on jazz, funk, ska and old-school minimalism by employing a full brass band to play pop songs, and the result sounds a lot like this:

Who by David Byrne & St. Vincent on Grooveshark

The band, a choreographed team of brass and woodwind musicians alongside a drummer and a keyboard player, broke into 'Who' as soon as Byrne had made his first wisecrack of the night. The Symphony Hall can prove too huge for a lot of rock and pop, voices and subtleties lost in the huge space, but Byrne and Clark's big-band tracks filled the room without hassle. As they worked their way through a two hour set, not even needing support bands to get everyone going, the crowd became more and more enthused, calling them on for two separate encores at the end. Here's the setlist:

David Byrne & St. Vincent Setlist Symphony Hall, Birmingham, England 2013, Love This Giant

The instrumentation and songwriting on Love this Giant definitely leave David Byrne firmly in his old category as one of the established avant-garde, but that isn't necessarily a comfortable collocation. 'Avant-garde' is about newness, but also about rebellion and challenge to what's gone before. Seeing the album performed live, the level of choreography and onstage organisation made me yearn for spontaneity. On the one hand, David Byrne and St. Vincent make music which is genreless, music I couldn't really compare to anything else right now, yet the performance was all very establishment-friendly - it would never get a bad review in the Guardian, because it follows the rule book on "How to Break the Rules"; i.e., though it was musically thrilling and fresh, it was hosted at an elite venue, followed a rigidly traditional show structure, showcased new talent without challenging the supremacy of the "star", and accepted a formal set of dress codes for its line-up. From talking to people afterwards, it seemed that many people loved the show as much as the music, but I felt it could have been a little more surprising. Still, that's no reason to critique the show too heavily: it was brilliantly played, the musicians were likeable, the hall had perfect acoustics and it was nigh-on impossible to get bored.

My favourite tracks of the night were 'Burning Down the House' and 'Cheerleader', written by Byrne and Clark respectively. The former got the whole audience dancing in the aisles, with a grand cheer rising from the hall as soon as these opening chords rang out from the stage. The latter, 'Cheerleader', was excellently performed live, building up to an epic and memorable chorus which stuck in my mind long after the concert had ended.

It's great to hear David Byrne contributing new music to the world, but it was possibly even better to help my friend's dreams come true afterwards by (reluctantly) agreeing to stage-door the man himself. 90% of the crowd had come to the gig for David Byrne, but only about 1% turned up to meet him afterwards, and by the time he came out onto Broad Street (of all streets!), only about 0.5% remained. So we got a peremptory glance from David Byrne and a moment of his time. My friend was so excited that she did a little dance - our relationships with our heroes are unfathomable sometimes. Nevertheless, if you get the chance to see David Byrne or St. Vincent, they're really worth the trip out (and in my case, the grotty hotel).

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