03 December 2008

Review: David Byrne (and the spaces within)

Landmark Theater, Syracuse, NY 29 November 2008

Of course, it came as no surprise. I had read about it, been warned about it and had gotten other people's reactions to it. Still, when the trio of dancers took the stage during the 2nd or 3rd song at David Byrne's show on Saturday night, it kind of... I dunno, made me gasp. Like you know you're going to get a serious chill when you go outside on a sub-freezing winter day, but as prepared as you are, it still gets under your layers and prickles the skin. I knew it was going to be something, I just didn't know what exactly it was going to be. What it was, was pure, vintage David Byrne. This is a guy who doesn't look at anything and doesn't think about capital "D" Design. Whether it's afrobeat inflected pop, bike racks, concert films (or films in general), urban decay, or even his freakin' amazing blog, Byrne brings an eye to life that few today can match. Dude is an artist, through and through. So, when David Byrne looks at a stage, he doesn't just see a place where he can play music, he sees, like he sees with everything else around him, a space to fill; a blank canvas on which to smear his aesthetic.

This is nothing new for Byrne: "Stop Making Sense" isn't just an amazing film of some amazing music, it's an artistic reconstruction of the live concert. The concert itself as an art form. It's an art form that few have had the vision to properly dabble in -- most musicians, even the very best of them, get on stage, play music and get off, with a trippy light show being the extent of the added value. It was interesting, then, for me to realize during this show that I've seen 3 shows in the past few months that seemed to go for it, to experiment, to not just make great art with their voices and instruments, but to create sculpture with the live show itself.

Starting with the most recent and moving backwards, we have Saturday's Byrne show. It's been a long while since I've seen any music over Thanksgiving weekend... I think I'd have to go back to 1992 when I ditched my family post-turkey to head down to Port Chester for Phish (a band that probably reached that level of live showmanship once or twice, but maybe could have gone even further (and maybe will someday soon)). Since then, I've been content to stay with the extended clan in Syracuse and recover in a cloud of leftovers and football. Never did I think great music would come to me, but lo and behold, David Byrne happens to be playing the Landmark the Saturday after Thanksgiving. Not only would I get to see music, but I'd have the rare opportunity to do it with my brother, sister and wife: the rarest trifecta of them all.

We arrived a bit early and the theater seemed empty... too empty. I feared a dead crowd, but it started filling up and from our vantage point in the balcony I had no clue how full the orchestra was. The band was on stage by 8:20, everyone dressed in a crisp white from head to toe. Byrne pretty much by himself at the front of the stage with his guitar, backed by 3 singers (2F/1M), a bass player, a drummer, a percussionist and a keyboard player. I imagine the show was similar/identical to others in terms of setlist and everything. A perfect blend and balance of Byrne/Eno stuff and Talking Heads/Eno stuff. The second tune was "I Zimbra" and I believe that's about when the dancers came out. There were three of them (2F/1M) and not knowing anything about dance, I wouldn't know how to categorize it. They were also dressed in white and they were a mix of goofy dance-to-the-funky music grooving, interpretative motion and graceful ballet-like maneuvers. The thing was, they weren't just dancing to the music, they were weaving themselves into and around the musicians themselves. At times they even elevated their presence, but manipulating the very matter of the live show itself: moving microphones and people around, imparting their presence on the entities that make up the concert.

Of course, this is all a touch discomforting to anyone who goes to see a concert every now and then. It's hard not to take it, at least initially, as a joke. Then, the song ends and they're gone and we're back in normal music mode. But, the reality of the show has shifted a bit... we're at least a step into meta-land and, of course, right where Byrne wants us. The 4th or 5th song was "Houses in Motion" from the Talking Heads Remain In Light album and by this point, I and the rest of the crowd had internally recalibrated our eyes and our ears and were, as a unit, more prepared. Everything up to this point, musically, had been terrific: David Byrne sounds just about as good as he probably ever has (and probably looks cooler with white hair than anyone since Andy Warhol) and the music really soars on its own. These songs are just damn good... the old stuff we all know and love is some of the best shit out there and the other stuff maybe even better and we just don't know it yet. When the "Houses In Motion" ended, however, it was like we had crashed through the glass roof of the chocolate factory. We were only 5 songs into the set and the crowd started cheering like they were demanding an encore. I'm not sure I've ever seen a reaction like that so early in the show. The song was so ripping and grooving and perfect and the combined glee from finally clicking with the dancers, finally getting the brilliance of what was going on in front of us, and sort of the fact that it all clicked for everyone so crisply at the same time.

(Update: here's Brother Liffy's video of the Houses in Motion)

The crowd finally settled down and the show continued in the same fashion, just getting better and better with each tune. This may be the most rocking, funky show I've seen with nary a guitar solo to be found. The band just grooves and is in perfect sync with Byrne from top to bottom. No one stands out -- literally whitewashed into a single band. Everything was a highlight, but of course, the Talking Heads tunes stand out. Seeing Byrne play "Heaven" is as sweet as I imagined it would be and is certainly an "I can now cross that off my list" moment. "Cross eyed and Painless" was totally scintillating; raise the roof good. As the show went on, the line between dancers and musicians seemed to blur and bleed, with the musicians sucked into the dancing and the dancers faux-guitar playing. Like so much of Byrne's stuff, it all comes off so effortlessly, but it's quite clear once you peel back the curtain a bit, that there's a wizard pulling the levers on each and every detail. As the supermodels say: it takes a lot of work to get this beautiful.

What I loved most about the dancers was just how understated it was. On one hand it's a pretty bold stroke -- it's the thing everyone's going to be talking about. On the other hand, it's very natural in retrospect. Unobtrusive, at the worst neutral, at the best purely augmentative. My favorite moment was one song when everyone was seated. The singers, the bass player, David Byrne and the dancers, everyone. DB & the dancers were up front in office chairs -- the same kind you're probably sitting on now. The tune was one of the mellower ones of the night, Dave on an acoustic guitar and the chairs, with their wheels and the potential of reclining just leant a relaxed, ergonomic vibe to the stage. Sometimes bands are able to achieve this through the right mix of colors in their lighting, but here Byrne delves deeper into what's going on up there on stage. He's filling the space and not just doing it willy-nilly.

And so, when I'm watching this, I thought back to seeing Radiohead this summer. It was part of the largely not-too-notable All Points West Festival in Jersey City in August. Of course, Radiohead headlined and played the main stage. That stage was equipped with large television screens and earlier in the day they had been manned by what felt like tha Junior High A/V club, using primitive wipes and 80's-MTV style faux-psychedelic effects that surely couldn't have gotten even the most crispy stoner off. I actually remarked to myself how ridiculous these were and cringed at the thought of Radiohead playing with those screens going behind them. Ah, me of little faith...

When the band finally took the stage, the screens seemed to have transformed, like gigantic plasma flat screens had replaced some old CRT's. Weird. Meanwhile, these long rectangular columns which had been stashed in the wings during the day (and certainly piqued my curiousity) were now arrayed above the stage like high tech stalactites. By the time the rumbling electro-noise had stopped and the band took the stage, we were no longer in Jersey City, but rather in Superman's fortress of solitude. Check out the pix over at BrooklynVegan. For the first few songs, the screens just acted as visual aids to those thousands in the I-can't-see-the-stage-from-here club of which I was at least a half member. The columns just lit up monochrome. But as the band made their way -- brilliantly -- through the setlist, these standard visuals came alive. Split screens synchronized to the music, the functionality of the pillars of lights increased and suddenly every song seemed to have its own visual story to tell. This was no ordinary light show, it told its own story, imparted itself upon the music -- it changed the way the instruments sounded. As the setlist carved out an arc in musical space, so did these lights as things went from a cold, singular blue to a dichrome red-and-purple to a fully progressed futuristic rainbow. Radiohead had a much larger space to fill than Byrne did on the stage of a municipal theater, and they brilliantly daubed brushstrokes of electrons and photons. Colors gave birth to new colors which then chased each other across the sky, matching the music, pushing and pulling the mood and generated an full sensory experience. The music was frickin' sick as well, quite possibly the most perfect set of music I've heard this year, not to mention that it came right after a tour-de-force from my platonic-male-crush-of-the-moment, Andrew Bird made the utter hassle of the whole event worthwhile... but no time for details here (wait, you still reading this??).

Of course, just saying you're going to be an artist don't make you one. Take it from me who has but a neutrino of talent to inspire. So, while I'd like to give them points for trying, Of Montreal who I saw back in October -- a show I wrote about here -- is a good example of what it looks like when someone throws shit at a wall and calls the result "art." There's a good distinction here between what Byrne and Radiohead do in the space within their live show and what Kevin Barnes did with his. That show was a true smorgasboard of an experience -- songs sung from the back of a horse, with a head in a noose, from inside a grave, dressed as the pope, etc -- certainly entertaining, but more in the kitschy "I can't believe I'm seeing this!" way, not in a "Holy shit, this is fucking brilliant!" way.

All three artists made me say "I've never seen that before." Two of them truly inspired me the way great artists do.

The end of the David Byrne show turned into almost a pure Talking Heads set: Life During Wartime, Once In A Lifetime, and then the first encore of Take Me to the River and The Great Curve (which was just made to have dancers gyrating while Byrne sings "the world moves on a woman's hips!"). Of course, the 2nd encore is undoubtedly part of the show every night, but undoubtedly every night he gets the same response he got in Syracuse on Saturday: pure, wild, audience love. It was the second great crowd I was part of over the holiday weekend. Always sucks to know stuff beforehand, but reading his blog, I knew that Burning Down the House and Air were now parts of the show and sure enough they returned and killed 'em both. What I didn't expect was that third encore, when they returned to the stage and brought everything back down to earth with the title track of the new David Byrne album. It was subtle and quiet and beautiful and a perfect end to another perfect show.

It was art. It was prepositional art: in, around, within, under and over. And really good shit taboot.

1 comment:

Erica said...

Having seen two of three shows referenced here this year, Byrne and Radiohead, I am in total agreement with your comments. Artistry often feels like the lost art these days, but these two shows are bringing it back in force.

Long live the Byrne, shoulder pads, and the white suit- the color that reflects everything!