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Byrne and St. Vincent: a match-up of marionette mannerisms

St. Vincent (left) and Byrne combined to create an inescapable force of marionette mannerisms.


David Byrne and St. Vincent
Queen Elizabeth Theatre
Thursday, September 20, 2012

The online music magazine Pitchfork once wrote that David Byrne would collaborate with anyone for a bag of Doritos. It was not meant as a flattering remark, neither toward Byrne nor the aggressively seasoned Frito-Lay product.

In his new book, How Music Works, the cultural omnivore and former Talking Heads front man defends his partnership choices (but not the snack). "I'm fairly picky," he writes, "but I am also willing to work with people who you might not expect me to. I'll risk disaster because the creative rewards of a successful collaboration are great."

Speaking of which, Byrne arrived Thursday evening at the intimate Queen Elizabeth Theatre. With him was Annie Clark, the talented young singer-musician who does her business as St. Vincent.

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The pair, an intriguing match-up to say the least (particularly to the music-nerd set), showed off their peculiar cross-generational partnership, one that has generated a delightfully offbeat new album (Love This Giant) and one that currently has the duo (with brass band in tow) making its way across North America. The tour hit Montreal last night, with a date in Vancouver (Oct. 20) still to come.

The curious affair began with Who, the punchy, oddly angled, sax-happy single from Love This Giant. "Who'll be my valentine, who'll lift this heavy load?" asked Byrne, his dinner jacket matching his enviable shock of white hair. To which Clark countered, her voice high and sweet, "Who is an honest man?"

Answering their own questions, the pair swapped vocals on the new material and each dipped into their own catalogues. Byrne, 60, often deferred, even to the point of lying on the floor with most of the band for Clark's standout Cheerleader.

Byrne's previous collaborations make for an impressive, if eclectic, résumé. Most recently, in 2010, he produced with DJ Fatboy Slim the concept album Here Lies Love, about the shoe-loving Imelda Marcos, that over-the-top wife of the fallen Philippine dictator. (A staged disco-musical is currently in the works.).

"Most of the time I collaborate, the dividing line is very cut," Byrne told me recently, from New York. "If I'm writing words over someone else's music, for example, I won't interfere with that music. It's in the interest of keeping everybody happy."

With Clark, for Dinner With Giants, the lines were blurred – "a hybrid," according to Byrne. "It is harder that way, but I think we ended up with something that didn't sound like anything either one of us had done before."

At the Queen Elizabeth, the brassed-up arrangements were an inescapable force. Marionette mannerisms belonging to Clark and Byrne were precise, self-conscious and awkward. Clark's high-heeled steps were quick and mincing, as if her ankles were shackled. She struck wildly stiff notes on her electric guitars, manipulating effect-pedals to geeky success. She sang marvellously, and was quite a sight.

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The eight-piece horn ensemble was something of a marching band, lining up and splitting up, left and right, forward and backward, facing this way and that way, and circling around, often with Byrne himself crisply in motion – an order to what could have been funky chaos.

The first encore ended with an old Talking Heads hit that left the house nicely singed, but not quite burned down. The second encore ended with the Heads' Road to Nowhere, which headed to a New Orleans street party, by the sounds of it. The disappearing toots of a tuba were the last things we heard.

This oddball collaboration, then? All that and a bag of chips, one might say.

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