How Music Works. David Byrne & St. Vincent, Roundhouse.

How Music Works. David Byrne & St. Vincent, Roundhouse.

Such is the live rendering of any which collaborative recording that there’s bound to be some treading of toes among the audience not only in a literal, but also an attitudinal sense and certainly, the stance adopted by stalwart Talking Heads acolytes tonight is one of external invasion and consequent infringement. Head of the sect so evidently in the numerical ascendancy this evening, David Byrne & St. Vincent, or Annie Erin Clark according to her passport, first came together late on in 2009 and hand in glove, they eventually released their début collaborative endeavour, Love This Giant, in September of last year.

A hyper-erudite pairing, even from the gleeful opening moments of the evening, their compatibility couldn’t be made any more patent yet whereas on record their intrinsically synergic rapport could exhibit itself in scatty fashion, when backed by an eight-piece brass ensemble, they ambidextrously bring together their respective back catalogues in a manner that is both enchanting and indeed cohesive. In short, it’s no wonder they get along as well as they so explicitly do…

The duo do, therefore, share in a somewhat instinctive crossover appeal, this particular collaboration bringing together not only artists, but so too audiences. They’re never exactly neutralising two opposing forces, though there is an air of resistance among Byrne’s more steadfast disciples. St. Vincent’s Save Me From What I Want for instance, lifted from her sophomore recording Actor and tonight afforded a magnificently pompous-to-the-point-of-becoming-bombastic sonic magnification, is met with initial indifference. The reaction typically reserved for the support act perhaps, the lack of which this evening feels slightly counterintuitive when considering the collaborative overtones of the show in essence.

Both Byrne and Clark share in upbringings and existences that have proven ragtag as their first record together: the former, born in Scotland, before relocating to Ontario and later Arbutus, Maryland as a child, has since been adopted by the traditionally inhospitable city of New York. The latter, meanwhile, having gone from Tulsa to Texas in her youth, has since also somehow found habitable comfort in the uncomfortable confines of Manhattan. It was there they first met, at Radio City Music Hall no less, a venue that is yet to luxuriate in their emphatic live performance. And rare though it may be, or mawkish as it might sound, the sense that pervades the evening is that this isn’t necessarily a collaboration accessible only to those onstage, but rather to anyone willing to intertwine themselves with one of the most innovatory happenings the capital has seen in quite some time.

A prerecorded announcement rattles over the PA, Byrne prattling on about the pair’s blasé attitude toward the digital recording of the show for posterity’s sake. (A reactionary statement against homegirl Karen O’s vetoing of all iPhone remembrance, perhaps.) Again embracive, they welcome all forms of gadget-abetted souvenir scrounging – iPad deployment notwithstanding – although ultimately encourage an unrestrained enjoyment unhindered by others. (If there would be one overarching qualm with their audience, then it’s that it can tend to be a tad static at the show’s most rampant, extempore jazz moments. This, after all, is a stylisation and of course a context pertaining as much to the corporeal as it is the cerebral.)

They first stir us, perhaps ill-advisedly and just as they did Love This Giant, with Who – the album’s swoon-inducing, syncopated, skyscraping high point and ultimately, up until today, the only proven instance really worthy of compulsively recurrent listening. It epitomises the best of their combined efforts, with Clark’s incisive guitar lines offset by Byrne’s equivalently crisp warbly bits and those impulsive blurts of Ethio-jazz that made the recording so essential in the first place. They become more improvisational; more engaging, with the duo’s complementary, if competitive vocal athletics an ever better fit live.

Byrne, armed with an acoustic guitar, has his movement – ‘as twitchy and Aspergery a stage presence’ as ever – freed up by what has since become known as a ‘Britney mic’, as he carries out a series of what he so self-deprecatingly concedes to be ‘ridiculous poses’ in his latest literary masterpiece, How Music Works. (Incidentally, in the exact same way his lettered study gave an unreservedly insightful glimpse into his perception of his life and livelihood, he this evening can’t utter a word without it going heard by all.) His performance, however, has retained its every drop of quirky eccentricity: whether writhing on the floor or pulling rabid simian posture, arms flailing wildly all the while, for a self-confessed ‘withdrawn introvert’ he couldn’t look more comfortable up on the Roundhouse’s consciously expansive stage. Of course he’s merely doing ‘something that absolutely anyone would be able to do’, although the way in which his rudimentary moves translate to something so strikingly ‘show-worthy’ ranks among his most potent strengths.

Clark, by contrast, is more or less anchored stage-centre – a motive weakness, if a disguised blessing. Her calm disposition – starkly accented by Byrne’s irrepressible mania – is inevitably impeded not only by the positioning of her microphone, but also by the pawn store guitar she clutches tight to her chest throughout. But her centrality seems less coincidental than it does concerted: although Byrne may be the main attraction for most, many have evidently had the curlers out in Clark’s honour, and coming at the evening from an alternate angle to the majority, seeing St. Vincent again almost feels to be the best excuse feasible to finally get to witness her counterpart’s widely lionised live show – filtered though that may be by this latest configuration.

Though as the duo proceed to power through the parp and fanfare of Weekend In The Dust, Clark takes the lead and with it the entire impetus shifts. The shadows pitched by a pretty supreme light show onto an off-white draped backdrop may recall those cast during revered Talking Heads tours of yore, but these few transitory moments belong to she quite unreservedly. As much thought has gone into this as those, and in a sense it’s no surprise to see Byrne again investing heavily – primarily physically, as opposed to pecuniarily – in this form of performance art. Not only is their backing section ludicrously proficient (David later reels off an extensive list of their latest escapades external to this, thus for once emphasising the importance of the individual even within this very collective recital), but they’ve been choreographed in such a way so as to imbue the show with a sense of multidisciplinary eminence. So not only do they bring “a whole hell of a load of brass” to proceedings, but they simultaneously lend an air of dramaturgical theatricality, too. Love This Giant denouement, Outside of Space & Time, plays out as though it were set for imminent staging somewhere along Shaftesbury Avenue, its every contributor brought to the fore and aligned with only Byrne breaking with regiment as he this time assumes primacy.

But in a way breaking with the conventions of Talking Heads’ esteemed tour of ’83, during which performers would only be seen onstage when directly involved with the performance itself, everyone remains respectfully present throughout. (Byrne plays momentary truant during a delightfully atonal waltz through Clark’s The Party, extending his prerequisite encore breather by only minutes.) Otherwise, he brings a series of improvisational surf moves to her tonight bone-shuddering Marrow – an unanticipatedly imperious high point of the entire evening, during which we can but commend her femme fatale credentials – as he struts impassioned stuff in a spandex-tight droog getup. His complex gestures may have stiffened a tad – lest we forget, keen cyclist Byrne is now the objective elder statesman of New Wave at sixty-one years young – but his assiduity and application remain unchanged.

As the lead is again interchanged, he guides us through a dizzying This Must Be The Place (Naive Melody) with a series of sushi chef gesticulations and an unquestionably authoritative vocal delivery, seamlessly integrating his being into the troop’s involving routines at every opportunity. Both he and Clark embroil themselves in the unorthodox workout through which the band are put during I Am An Ape – a song which, if a squirmish blip on record, turns resplendent live – with its response wildly primal. A conga line forms, Byrne once again with an acoustic to hand as Clark emphatically karate chops a drum pad. It’s absolute performance art put together to impeccably precise specification, and puts, say, Shaking The Habitual to shame. Properly composed by contrast, not only is the music recited live and in innovative fashion, but its orchestrators are involved as the spectacle itself feels involving.

Indeed, it’s unrelenting as Watch The Throne, every song albeit proving infinitely preferable. And again, whereas Kanye West and his waning counterpart would rarely share the stage, Clark and Byrne are only too keen to get close. They go so far as to share in a synchronised argent hair colour, though Byrne’s puritanical white garb stands out against Clark’s monochrome adorned only slightly with slives of shimmering silver. Yet if their costumes contrast with one another, then it’s the radiant camaraderie in which they share – again antithetical to the oneupmanship of both Watch The Throne, during which the two hip hop titans would continually strive to outdo one another, and so too Shaking The Habitual, where the overriding impression was of The Knife diddling their audience – that galvanises and with it beguiles.

With the show having been preceded by a plethora of Amazonian chirps that filled the Roundhouse with exotic repose, The Forest Awakes is awarded context, its crude, natural brass melded with a more industrially affected electronic lilt in the same way that Clark’s piercingly angular poise contradicts Byrne’s chameleonic blending into the surrounds of his native backing band. The diminutive Clark then takes an almighty lead on Optimist, its lyrics of 30th Street and spying “Vivian Girls on the Up-Upper East” uniting the duo in a common relish for their now-native NYC atop a lavish musical backdrop massive as Manhattan itself.

The duo’s honed vocal duality, meanwhile, makes itself manifest during an innately jittery Northern Lights: Byrne’s quivering makes him seem like Brian Wilson on Ritalin, though his register renders the Strange Mercy standout a little more singable for the males in attendance, as when charted against Clark’s intangibly operatic timbre, it mercifully becomes that bit more graspable. Illumined by epileptic flashes – another sign of this being a fully collaborative production, with stage hands, technical engineers, and so on central to its execution – they revel in a gratuitous theremin duel “brought to you by Bob Moog, Clara Rockmore, and Bruce Lee.” This, as is Byrne’s durable intention, is the exhibition of it being ‘possible to mix ironic humor with sincerity in performance. Seeming opposites could coexist.’

It’s a notion he’s explored time and time again throughout his expertly miscellaneous musical exploits that now date back numerous decades, and never have his talents been put to better symbiotic effect than in 2002, when he combined with the ephemerally successful British dance outfit X-Press 2 to produce Lazy. Tonight reprised and with it reenergised, it’s dynamically made into a sprightly martial stomp that’s as paradoxical as it is unparalleled. “I’m lazy when I’m speaking, I’m lazy when I walk/ I’m lazy when I’m dancin’, and I’m lazy when I talk” Byrne intones a little indolently, Clark’s immaculate harmonies deferentially mirroring his softly undulating tone. Though he himself is anything but idle, and remains among the most artistically proactive maestros of his time. Furthermore, the abiding distinction of the song itself seems to suggest that although centred around sloth, it really had legs to it all along. And so, as St. Vincent perfects her signature skeletal totter about her ever-beloved “archangel of absurdity”, a wholly immersive show hits its euphoric peak.

Elaborate glimmers of Byrne’s enduring penchant for expressive consortium protrude elsewhere, too: Strange Overtones, taken from he and Brian Eno’s second record optimistically entitled Everything That Happens Will Happen Today and released in 2008, brings disco shimmy that simultaneously feels superbly melancholy, a vibrant sousaphone its glinting disco ball, while I Should Watch TV concerns Byrne’s eventual coming into cahoots with 21st century television manufacture, the effects of which are yet to fully settle. A score that ultimately, and most pertinently gets settled this evening, however, is that which suggests Love This Giant to be a far more inspiratory recording than it was first given credit for. A carefree calypso rendition of The One Who Broke Your Heart pieces together its recorded inconsequence in order that it become a kind of logical successor to Arrow’s Hot Hot Hot, a comparison that demists itself as the temperatures inside this illustrious cultural stronghold continually increase.

Though essentially, it’s the palpable feel of a real touring troop that burns brightest, with those entertainers round up by ringleaders Clark and Byrne only too capable of making this, the live experience, enhance their previously recorded intents tenfold. Its two primary orchestrators of course bring out the best in one another as well, ensuring the frequent points at which they delve into their personal discographies feel highly agreeable, and never alien. Whether that be the wholly immersive, jaunty doo-wop of Wild Wild Life – a song initially intended for a karaoke scene from Byrne’s ’86 flick True Stories, during which their band members tonight take turns to sing its giddying lines one at a time – or a rightfully incendiary Burning Down The House that sees the two vocalists sparring jovially beneath an unsparing red, their interaction is never incompatible.

Nonetheless, as Byrne presses: “Would you like to come along?/ You can help me sing this song/ And it’s alright, baby it’s alright” during a seemingly Rawhide-inspired Road To Nowhere, that has been further bolstered by a ’20s swing outro, the lingering sense is that there’s only one star in the ascendancy this evening, and that’s a seemingly very merry Annie. Having first heard Byrne’s music whilst watching Revenge of the Nerds at the tender age of four (the film’s soundtrack incidentally featured Burning Down The House, no less), it was ostensibly he who opened her mind up to “another stratospheric realm accessed via music” and she very publicly credits him for that very premature lifeway revelation. “Thank you to David for having done what all of us probably want to do – for having inserted more joy into the universe” she openly decrees in what would doubtless seem excessively sycophantic, were the evening in its entirety not quite so joyful in itself. Its two moments of most unadulterated delight stem from Strange Mercy, and up first is Cheerleader.

Its verse spooked by a guttural vocal octave effect, a lonesome St. Vincent is overlooked by an off-centre spectral shadow cast by she herself, before its chorus splits open to spill a sort of Sony Xperia ad euphoria across the stalls. With Byrne and their brass section erased from sight, all eyes fall on her, though she finds herself only too capable of fending for herself, the song’s macabre qualities casting an imposing stature even without the fifteen-foot silhouette hanging over her. A brassy Cruel, too, unlocks that aforesaid realm of the incomprehensibly ecstatic incurred only by music this sensational, Clark cajoling a perfectly stuttering solo from only the one guitar string. And so as was with Watch The Throne before it, this feels to be the passing of the baton, or rather the rhythm stick, down the generations. He is to she what James Brown was to Byrne when first witnessed at the Providence Civic Center however many moons ago, and while it must remain an unrivalled experience for the precocious protégé not only to have her music transposed into brass arrangement, but also sung by her childhood hero nightly, it is she who steals the evening.

There couldn’t be a more fitting venue for this particular show, the Camden Roundhouse one teeming with history and brimming with perpetual innovation in the live music arena. New chapters continue to be composed, and its latest was doubtless scribed tonight for if it’s taken nigh on a year of touring for the twosome to finally make it over to London, then they have, at long last, vindicated every second of the wait. This is how music works.

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