The term “supergroup” is often used to refer to a set of musicians who are best known in association with their respective bands — musicians who haven’t necessarily operated as solitary acts in their own right, and are culled together to see what their individual untapped energies will create when synthesized. By contrast, when speaking of a pair of artists that write and perform together, each possessing their own prolific solo careers, the relationship is usually defined — accurately, but less overtly bombastically — as a “collaboration” between them. It should be preemptively stated, therefore, that the “collaboration” between David Byrne, former founder and frontman of world-famous new-wave-art-rockers Talking Heads, and Annie Clark, better known as the gorgeously cacophonous St. Vincent, possesses all of the grandeur and might that the term “supergroup” conjures the image of. Backed by a seven-piece horn section, sampling engineer, and percussionist, Byrne and Clark have birthed one of the most unusual but compelling albums of 2012, a 45-minute opus titled Love This Giant, and the Orpheum Theatre, best known as a host of many musicals and plays from all eras and countries, offered its stage to the pair for the San Francisco stop on their tour.
Rather than a set full of winking glances, dueling guitars, or even significant physical exchanges between the two, Byrne and Clark each brought their full voices and character to the performance, delivering marvelously for every note with nearly no pauses between their songs, and moving surprisingly independently of one another during most of their set. Byrne, known for his quirky and whimsical dance steps, often served as leader to the massive set of brass players, who moved about the stage with delicate, choreographed precision. A jig back and forth here, a roundabout journey there, and even the occasional leap in the air (or drop to a prone position on the ground) — aside from the drummer and sampler, all moved in marvelous time to the music, most often with Byrne in the lead or center. Accompanied with a dazzling light display, which kept the room in hues of blue and green (but didn’t hesitate to dash through the full spectrum from time to time), the performance was a delightful feat to watch, and paired wonderfully with the bright, shimmering tunes of the miniature orchestra.
We’ve noted St. Vincent and her mesmerizing, frenetic energy before, and even with the hypnotizing sway of Byrne and the brass around her, she still put on a captivating display of her own when armed with her guitar. While she abandoned the instrument for a view pieces to trade vocal harmonies with Byrne, mirroring his marches back and forth beneath the swaying lights, Clark’s own fancy footwork was displayed with great gusto whenever she had the axe slung over her shoulder. Her gentle, haunting vocal passages of a siren-like beauty clashed magnificently with the violent, stampeding stutter of her shoes upon the dancefloor, as well as the seizurelike tussles with which she swung her guitar back and forth, as much at war with the instrument as she was in perfect synergy with it. The juxtaposition of the explosively-animated Clark with the gentlemanly swagger of Byrne became a subject of fascination for the duration of the set, the two trading energies back and forth gracefully with barely a moment of direct interaction between them.
With their album occupying less than an hour of total time, and a two-hour set scheduled for their evening in the sold-out Orpheum Theatre, Byrne and St. Vincent each offered a handful of their own songs to accompany the ten songs that they performed from Love This Giant. Byrne had both solo works and Talking Heads pieces that drew ecstatic screams from his fans within the crowd, which found against the rigid seating arrangements to dance within the aisles of the theater, and Clark’s songs, newly arranged with the backing horns and delicate tenor croons from Byrne, were a positive treat to the aforementioned onlookers who were less familiar with her work. The evening wove marvelously between solo pieces and joint works, and the accompaniment was excellently-penned — a casual listener would be likely to guess that all songs within the set had been written fully by both musicians.
It was clear, by the end of the set, that the crowd was raring to celebrate in the fullest capacity, and the pair responded brilliantly to the challenge by offering not one, but TWO encores, to their performance. The audience’s swaying hips and synchronized hand claps that accompanied Clark’s two biggest pieces, “Cruel” and “The Party”, were full of jubilance and enthusiasm, but still paled compared to the excitement that chorused through the theater as the band performed “Burning Down The House” to end their first encore. After the aforementioned performance of “The Party”, Byrne, Clark, and their dazzling accompaniment closed the night with “Road To Nowhere”, with nearly every soul beneath the roof of the theater singing out every word of the sound in joyous union. Clark’s brief introduction and expression of gratitude to Byrne, the band, and the audience before them was one of the few acknowledgements she offered for everyone to hear, and it bore a greater weight and shining sincerity as a result; the group bow at the end of the show was another, and the band popped onstage one more time, pumping out an invigorating marching tune as they departed into the darkness.
As a recently-enthralled St. Vincent fan, and a longtime-but-mostly-casual listener of the Talking Heads, I was delighted by how warmly welcoming this show was, especially as it was melded so expertly with the songs from Love This Giant. The antics and acrobatics that the musicians displayed onstage together were charming and fun to behold, and never seemed particularly strained, rigid or overdone in their exhibition — it was truly a show, an element that is lauded less frequently in live performance, which lives and breathes with spontaneity. As much as the band seemed to move with predetermined steps, David Byrne’s jerky but deliberate movements are filled with a vigorous character in and of themselves, and with the sonic whirlwind of St. Vincent thrown into the ring, the entire onstage display becomes an awesome spectacle. As Byrne has always been prone to interesting sonic discoveries and experiments, it will be exciting to see what his next “collaboration” is, and whether or not it brings the same unyielding grandiloquence of Love This Giant.
Additional photos from the show below. All photos © 2012 Jonathan Pirro.