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Monday, Sept. 17, 2012

David Byrne and St. Vincent @ Riverside Theater

Sept. 16, 2012

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CJ Foeckler
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In the five years since her debut full length, Marry Me, Annie Clark, better known by her stage name St. Vincent, has built up quite a bit of traction. But even for an artist whose star was already on the rise, teaming up with the legendary David Byrne for an album is a major commercial and creative coup. It’s not merely that some of the ex-Talking Heads frontman’s respect and renown might rub off on her—though that’s undoubtedly the case whether she needs it or not—but because collaboration has always brought out the best in Byrne. Even when the Talking Heads were still active, they welcomed contributions from outsiders as diverse as Nona Hendryx, Bernie Worrell and Robert Fripp, and as a solo artist, Byrne has routinely sought out people who challenge him artistically, whether that means scoring films and operas, recording albums with the likes of Fatboy Slim and longtime partner in crime Brian Eno, or providing guest vocals for just about anybody who asks him. When he connects with somebody who pushes him in a new direction, and who is willing to be pushed out of his or her comfort zone in return, the results are often extraordinary, and his work with Clark, the new Love This Giant, is no exception.

The hotly anticipated release naturally spawned a hotly anticipated tour, and once again, Byrne and Clark have delivered the goods. Since they started working on the project in late 2009, the duo has had a lot of time to get in sync with each other (though some of their collaboration took place via email), but even that elongated timeline doesn’t entirely account for how natural and comfortable they appear together onstage. Byrne’s skills don’t, or at least shouldn’t, require any expounding upon, but relative newcomer Clark brings just as much to this particular table, often stealing the show with impressive runs on the guitar and the drum machine as well as with her powerful vocals, which provide an expressive foil to Byrne’s tense stammer. Their sound is rounded out by a number of extra musicians, including a full brass section that boasts talented players who’ve previously worked with the likes of Beirut, Arcade Fire, LCD Soundsystem and Sufjan Stevens.

Musically speaking, they were nothing short of exceptional as they ran through a long but consistently energetic set that, of course, featured plenty of Love This Giant, but also stretched out to include tunes drawn from their respective solo careers, and even some Talking Heads numbers like “This Must Be the Place (Naïve Melody),” “Burning Down the House” and “The Road to Nowhere,” with the latter providing a rousing closer. But just as engrossing was the show’s visual elements, which, while simple, were incredibly effective. Taking advantage of the sheer number of people onstage, Byrne, Clark and company devised some elaborate blocking and choreography, tailored perfectly to the tone of each individual song, which sat somewhere between marching-band moves and interpretive dance. That may sound stiff or pretentious, but it was all synthesized with the lights and the music in a loose and funky way that gave the impression that it was all happening spontaneously. It was a prime example of creatively turning next to nothing (normal stage lights, the musicians themselves) into something, but it also drove home just how many wonderfully unexpected things can happen when talented people come together.