David Byrne and St. Vincent - Live At The Roundhouse, London

Older, wiser... but Byrne will always fascinate...

In recent years it’s been tempting to think of David Byrne as a serial collaborator, as he’s worked with Fatboy Slim, his old mucker Brian Eno and Dirty Projectors alongside many others.

Viewed from the perspective of over 35 years since the charismatic Byrne emerged with Talking Heads, a band that more or less defined art punk, his career feels like it’s featured more collaborative projects than anything else – works for theatre, dance, film and TV, adding his distinctive vocals to club tracks, singing live with Arcade Fire, Caetano Veloso and so on.

For a man whose most famous lyric suggested he was on a road to nowhere in particular, Byrne appears to have carved a singular and fruitful path throughout his musical career, as well as his parallel career as a conceptual artist.

‘Love This Giant’, his 2012 album with St. Vincent (Annie Clark to her parents), definitely occupied the more ‘pop’ end of Byrne’s collaborative releases. Recorded over two years, 'Love This Giant' (Clash review) eschewed a traditional rock sound in favour of rich brass arrangements blended with a sprinkling of electronics, the result being somewhere between bombastic college marching band, classic Gershwin and ragtime Joplin.

Clark’s lyrics opt for a pseudo-philosophical style that comment sagely on the world, while Byrne’s go for a typically questioning mode which puts himself at the centre of his universe, mixing anthropology with the quotidian. Tonight, like they did on ‘Love This Giant’, Clark and Byrne take it in turns to deliver lead vocals, only occasionally – as on the upbeat ‘Who’ or the X-Press 2 hit ‘Lazy’ – sharing centre stage.

The last time Byrne played the Roundhouse, he didn’t really play it all. Instead he offered his ‘Playing The Building’ installation, allowing visitors to create sounds from the architecture of the historic construction itself via a battered old keyboard and all manner of wires, hammers and switches. Tonight’s show parks Byrne’s clever art sensibilities in favour of a more or less traditional gig.

That is until you witness the choreography – it ever so subtly fractures the otherwise straight musical delivery, alternately looking like a mechanical Merce Cunningham piece and the prison scene from Chicago. Coordinating a 10-strong band – one of whom is playing the ludicrously big sousaphone – and two singers is no mean feat. Clark, peroxide blonde and dressed in black, white and gold teeters around the stage like a jerky music box doll while Byrne – “the archangel of absurdity,” as Clark dubs him, entirely in white save for some dark braces – goes for what could be semaphore, mild stretching, tap or t’ai chi.

It’s amusing and deceptively artsy at the same time, adding a quirky dimension to the affirming austerity of the likes of ‘Optimist’. That song, with its most profoundly genteel uplifting message delivered by Clark, would surely be intended for the very end of a set. Needless to say that honour goes to a particularly louche, New Orleans-y ‘Road To Nowhere’, complete with some aimless marching (naturally).

As well received as the towering tracks from ‘Love This Giant’ are, and despite some truly show-stealing, accomplished songs from the St. Vincent back catalogue, not to mention some cracking kung fu Theremin shadow boxing by the two singers on ‘Northern Lights’ from Clark's 'Strange Mercy’ album (Clash review), somewhat predictably it’s the run through of some of Talking Heads’ best-loved tracks that receive the strongest response.

‘This Must Be The Place (Naïve Melody)’ sounds even more emotional when its reedy keyboard riff is augmented by rousing brass, while the joyously nihilistic ‘Wild Wild Life’ from ‘True Stories’ remains as ridiculously chaotic as ever. The angular, jerky movements of Byrne’s ‘Stop Making Sense’ days may have been replaced by a more laconic, worldly assuredness – how else can you explain wryly introducing ‘Love This Giant’’s ‘Outside Of Space And Time’ as a tribute to the Higgs boson particle – but the wiser Byrne still offers flashes of his hyperactive younger self, best exemplified by a raucous ‘Burning Down The House’ reverberating noisily round the Roundhouse gleefully.

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Words: Mat Smith

Photos: Rachel Lipsitz

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