David Byrne & St. Vincent Sarofim Hall, Hobby Center October 6, 2012
Late, late into David Byrne and St. Vincent's appearance at Hobby Center Saturday, the duo arrived at a song whose title suited the evening to a T: "The Party." The tune itself, from St. Vincent's 2009's album Actor, was formal, subdued, even a little standoffish, and not indicative of what had been going on the entire evening up to that point in the slightest.
By then it was far too late to take any points off for this momentary hiccup in momentum; we are talking about the third song of the encore here. Most of the people around me must have been exhausted from boogieing hard to "Burning Down the House," as they had been through most of the show, and grateful for the opportunity to sit down. I was, anyway.
And the former Talking Head and Dallas-raised indie-rocker (born Annie Clark), plus their ten-member touring band including an eight-piece brass section, were just about to send everyone out into the first true fall weather of the year with a big ol' grin on their faces thanks to "Road to Nowhere." They spent most of that song marching around the stage in a line like toy soldiers on Christmas morning, so no hard feelings there either.
Going in, it was difficult to know exactly what to expect out of the show, because the album Byrne and Clark released last month, Love This Giant (4AD), is a bit of a head-scratcher itself. It's a little restrained, a little mysterious, full of enigmatic lyrics and scattered Biblical references, and manages to radiate a deep humanity you don't hear that often.
A muted brass ensemble dominates the musical arrangements, so a lot of it sounds like dinner-party music, but with some of the most fascinating conversation you've heard in a while. Saturday, Byrne dedicated the last song of the main set, "Outside of Space and Time," to the Higgs-Boson particle. Love is stranger than quantum physics.
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But where Giant differs in concert from on record is that when you take a plus-size brass section on the road with you -- left to right, by my count during the "Road to Nowhere" march, baritone sax, trumpet, trombone, French horn, Sousaphone, trombone, tenor sax and trumpet -- the cereberal aspects of the album remain intact, but can't help but take a back seat to the cascading swells and all-encompassing din of that many horn players honking and squawking away at once.
The music could sound like of a New Orleans street party at times, horn charts from '60s and '70s James Brown records, a little Tito Puente, or a chorale from Handel's Water Music. Usually it landed somewhere in the middle. But with that many instruments (oh, plus a flute), they had plenty of combinations to choose from, and hit nearly all of them, from the unrestrained cacophony of "I Should Watch TV" to the blissful euphony of "The Optimist."
There were two other musicians there, a keyboardist/effects guy to fill in the gaps and a drummer whose hip-hop beat for second song "Weekend In the Dust" set a pace that barely slowed the rest of the evening. Byrne did pause to greet the audience (as he had offstage earlier to urge the crowd to think twice before spending the show "with a gadget in front of your face"), and Clark announced that she was still "a Texas girl at heart." Awww.
Although they could have easily been swallowed by everything that was going on around them, Byrne and Clark were both in their element. He did melt into the background once in a while, but surely by design. Byrne would make a good mad scientist, striking the proper balance between bemused and serious on "Strange Overtones" and "Like Humans Do," and doing the walking-against-the-wind dance on "Naive Melody."
St. Vincent, though, seems like such a delicate little thing but is actually more along the lines of the lyric in "Marrow" that talks about a "spine made of iron." It sounds like she needs it: "Marrow" gave off a distinct impression of stalking or pursuit, while the enervated "Save Me From What I Want" rolled and pitched away like there was no center to be held. She just seems different -- human (or humanoid), but not like one of us. In that "Road to Nowhere" line, while the other musicians marched, Clark skittered.
Indeed, one of the most enjoyable parts of the show was the astute physical choreography, as various points of the evening found the winds in two colums squaring off against each other or facing the audience, walking around in a circle during "Strange Overtones," sprawled around the keyboard and drum risers, and even lying on their backs during St. Vincent's "Cheerleader."
They could well have stayed that way during the next song, "Lazy," and had certainly earned some rest at that point. Instead, the musicians eventually rose to their feet. The smart members of the audience were already there.
Personal Bias: It's fun to watch a record you already like take on a completely different life of its own onstage.
The Crowd: Not a full house, but close enough. (I couldn't see the balcony.) Houston Texans linebacker Connor Barwin and his date were on the row behind me.
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Overheard In the Crowd: The bird calls of the house PA as I followed the first half of the UT-West Virginia game on Twitter. I thought the show started at 8, but it was actually closer to 8:45. Fine by me.
Random Notebook Dump: Whatever it was, Byrne plugged each horn player's individual project, all of which were available for sale in the lobby.