David Byrne | Riverside Theater | 15 May
I used to hate the Talking Heads (“the” is improper but without it the whole rhythm of the sentence is fucked, sorry). Not a Weird Al parody, not even Phish covering an entire album, swayed me from my dislike of their music. You get to a point eventually where it’s impossible to unravel your love of an artist back into your initial hatred of them; I’m sure it had something to do with David Byrne’s voice, but even that seems absurd to me now. And it hasn’t even been that long.
I saw Byrne at the third Bonnaroo and did not enjoy his performance at all. It pains me that my attitude could’ve been so poor; it seems so unlikely that his set was actually bad. I was probably exhausted from heat, storms, disharmony amongst my crew, etc.; I was way off in the distance barely paying attention. It was broad daylight. I’m pretty sure, even though smart phones didn’t exist yet, that we were bracing for another round of storms already. It was turning out to be the worst Bonnaroo ever, but luckily for us it was actually gonna get waaay worse in the years to come. It was not the perfect atmosphere in which to come around to David Byrne, I reckon.
The next thing I knew, he was putting out a collaborative album with St. Vincent, whom I love. The intensity of my dislike had dissipated by then; enough people had told me what an idiot I was that I’d resolved to give Talking Heads my best shot. I’d start at the beginning and work my way forward and learn to like this band, dammit. Well, the thing about that first album, Talking Heads: 77, is that it sucks. Yes, we can all agree that “Psycho Killer” is great and indicative of the fresh new sound Talking Heads were developing, but that is the only song on the album that’s memorable in a good sense. It’s painfully awkward like all the rest of ‘em but its lyrics and hooks break free into legitimate entertainment, whereas the rest of the time I just kinda feel bad for Byrne, like why did you put yourself through the torture of being a vocalist?
Obviously I’m grateful that he did, because as he gained confidence and realized his vision, he ultimately gave the world some of the most unique and infectiously danceable music white people have ever come up with. You don’t get to that level without some missteps, and his career has seen plenty, one of them being that 2012 album with St. Vincent, Love This Giant. The best thing about it is its bizarre cover art; the tunes are very contrived and feel very static, so when I pitched a review of the Milwaukee stop on that tour, I fully expected to be setting myself up for a pan. I was way wrong, as is very often the case.
Byrne onstage was not the inflexible egotist he seems to be on the internet; he seemed like a shy dork, clearly in awe of Annie Clark. (Or was that sentence actually about me?) I’d seen St. Vincent a few times already but when did Clark become this absolute sorceress of guitar? I was blowwwwn away, and the chemistry between her and Byrne was utterly charming. I’d already gotten to a point of admiring Byrne, but this was my first time relating to him. He seemed genuinely tickled just to be up there and I was onboard with that feeling. I came away from that show more enthused than ever about the weirdo.
The tipping point was the following year. September 2013, the first Milwaukee Film Festival screening of Stop Making Sense. Correct, I had not previously seen the greatest concert film of all time, what’s it to ya? As fate would have it, I crashed my bike that afternoon and injured my shoulder, so I was in no condition to dance, but maybe it was best that I just sit and take it in the first time. Like any sensible person, I was blowwwwwn away. Now I understood. Now it didn’t matter what Byrne might do from now on; he was a genius and he could ride that out for the rest of his life.
Lucky thing, because his solo album from this year, American Utopia, is awful. This time I knew better than to let that discourage me from seeing him live, though. I already reviewed that Riverside show (here); let’s just say his claim that it was the most ambitious tour he’d done since the ‘80s rang true. It was relatively easy to tolerate the handful of crappy new songs because a) the visual presentation was spectacular and unlike anything else I’ve ever seen; b) Byrne is so engaging onstage that it’s almost impossible to have a bad attitude towards him; and c) ANGIE SWAN, perhaps the most underrated guitarist I’ve ever seen live—not that her full spectrum of talent was on display at this show, but every chance she had in the spotlight, she killed it, and the hometown crowd gushed loudly. Bottom line, don’t ever skip a chance to see Byrne live. I would gladly go see this exact same show again.