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Report: David Byrne & St Vincent, Melbourne 2013

David Byrne & St. Vincent
Hamer Hall, Melbourne
Monday 14th January 2013

Despite David Byrne verging on some sort of pop cultural deity in recent times, as well as being twice his current musical partner's age, the ex-Talking Head isn't such an odd bedfellow for St. Vincent—aka Annie Clark. Both share their neurosis in their art; both subscribe to an off-hand and inscrutable approach to pop; both are savants of a sort (Clark = guitar, Byrne = brain); both look like Thunderbird puppets on stage. Tonight, they grace us with a nearly two hour run through both their shared and individual catalogues.

Here to push their recent collaborative effort, last year's pretty good Love This Giant, the band setting is a revelation. On a spare stage, the ten-piece group are made up of a drummer, a keyboardist/multi-instrumentalist and a multitude of brass that pull double-duty as dancers -- a remnant from Byrne's experimentation with choreography for his tour behind 2008's Everything That Happens Will Happen Today. Live, this horn-heavy configuration turns Love This Giant's flat and one-dimensional production into a vibrant, grand affair. 'Outside of Space and Time' is deeply moving in a way that the recording never suggests; 'The One Who Broke Your Heart' suddenly shares that nervy joy Talking Heads were rife with. 'Optimist' echoes the giddy rush of MGMT's 'Time To Pretend'—of all things— while album openers 'Who' and 'Weekend In The Dust' are elegant highlights. Not all of the album's songs are so vividly transformed, but the ones that are, reframe the entire thing.

Peppering solo songs amongst the album tracks, the pair seem to enjoy alternating with second fiddle. When not conducting from the front, Byrne—in suit, braces and Chuck Taylors—loafs around the stage and tends to flop up and down as he dances. The cocktail-dress clad Clark incessantly totters back and forth from her mic, as if on wheels. (No, just high heels). Critic Lester Bangs once wrote of Byrne: "he seemed close to fish but not quite saline enough." If Byrne was fish, then then Clark is mantis -- her almond-shaped face, Anime eyes and addictive cheer provides an impossibly pretty foil to Byrne's goofy and professorial demeanour.

They bounce back and forth from the lip of the stage, depending on who's taking lead vocals at the time; one minute Byrne's looking for his mark in the choreographed horn section while Clark delivers another burst of guitar noise; now she's in shadows as Byrne conducts from the front. An indie-rock Punch and Judy. With only twenty-odd gigs under their belt as a duo—tonight their first show since October last year—the complex setlist scheduling works well. But the single greatest thing about seeing tonight's show is plain: summarily stripped of their limp album production, the song's from Love This Giant turn full-blooded -- simply by virtue of them being performed live by a great band.

Byrne wears a headset mic for the show. Its unintended side-effect is that in the silence between songs we hear him quietly panting -- every so often he mutters to himself. Before 'Lazarus' he looks down at the setlist while a tech straps on a guitar. "What does this mean?" he thinks/says out loud. "I've got a guitar..." It's delicious to find out his thought-process-as-lyrics remain intact. Clark has her own startled charisma, a clutch of graceful songs -- 'Cruel', 'Cheerleader' and a version of 'Northern Lights' (that includes a theramin fight) receive a few shrieks of recognition. But it's her last solo song, the stately 'The Party' that cuts deepest. Unsurprising to anyone who saw her on her 2012 trip here, she can hold her own next to Byrne. Still, it's unfair that anyone has to alternate their own tunes with the elder's quiver of modern rock staples.

Of those Talking Heads tracks we get a trio: a shimmering 'This Must Be The Place (Naive Melody)' aided by flute and bubbling sousaphone; a rendition of 'Burning Down The House' that's the closest we come to small-club wish-fulfillment, and rousing show closer 'Road To Nowhere'. Byrne adds in solo songs 'Lazy', 'Like Humans Do' and the Eno-collab 'Strange Overtones'—his best post-Heads pop track to date. Some backhanded local colour doesn't hurt the all-ages crowd's smouldering goodwill either. "This one goes out to Adelaide's gift to the world, the Murdoch family," says Byrne before an animated version of Love This Giant's 'I Should Watch TV', the singer seeming to especially relish chewing on the song's bitter undertone.

In the second encore Clark preludes 'Burning Down The House' by explaining that, thanks to Revenge of the Nerds, she first heard the song at age 3. And that it's a great pleasure to be here. It is. It would be more than enough for Byrne to show up to bang out a greatest hits set (and it would definitely serve him well to perform somewhere a little livelier than a concert hall every once in a while). But it's testament to the man's relentless curiosity, that his every-album-cycle appearances in Australia—in whatever incarnation he so chooses—remain pretty much essential. Come back soon. (Release a live album!)

Marcus Teague (@MarcusTheVine)

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