David Byrne and St. Vincent Really Know How to Close a Festival
She was barely 5-feet tall, but still determined to reach David Byrne one way or another.
The 20-something woman found her spot front-and-center below the 7-foot-high Fred Shellman Memorial Stage, named in honor of the late founder of the Telluride Bluegrass Festival. She positioned herself for maybe that once-in-a-lifetime chance to interact with the Talking Headliner, one of alternative rock’s most innovative musicians.
With a release mechanism precariously clinging to a fairly wrinkled copy of Byrne’s memoir, Bicycle Diaries, at the end of a long pole that took care of the height problem, her handwritten note on a sheet of paper read “Please Sign Me?” with additional words that required a magnifying glass to read.
A passion for live music will make you go to great lengths to realize your dreams.
The 2013 Ride Festival in Telluride, Colorado, provided that opportunity on July 14 with the welcome return of Byrne, who this time was teaming up with Annie Clark, perhaps the indie rock ‘n’ soulmate he always knew existed but figured he’d never meet.
Putting their heads together for an adventurous album last September called Love This Giant, Byrne and Clark (under the performance name St. Vincent) finally brought their own magical mystery tour to Colorado over the weekend.
“We were lucky that they were routed to Denver the night before and Salt Lake City the night after,” festival organizer Todd Creel said via email. “I have been a fan for a long time and we were very fortunate that they were willing to make a stop in Telluride.”
No doubt about that. While the second-year festival included some heavy hitters who know how to close, Byrne and Clark (left) were a phenomenal finishing act. Their visually stunning show was truly an original work of art-house construction that will stand alongside an impressive list of individual accomplishments.
Physically awkward but incredibly limber at age 61, Byrne held up well at Telluride’s 8,750-foot altitude, which he experienced in 2009 on the same Town Park stage at the progressive bluegrass festival. No oxygen tank was nearby during a demanding set that at one point put him and the rest of the brass section flat on their backs without missing a note. His series of moves included a few high kicks of the karate kind in a beauty-vs.-beast faceoff with Clark near the end of St. Vincent’s “Northern Lights.”
The overall production combined elements of a funky eight-piece brass band (led by St. Vincent keyboardist Daniel Mintseris) that doubled as a constantly moving set piece with Broadway song-and-dance musicality and Byrne’s own Strange But True Stories.
“This is a song that I wrote some years ago for a scene in a movie and it was a video karaoke thing, I call it,” Byrne said timidly about halfway through the 100-minute set. But any inhibitions were released with a spirited rendition of “Wild Wild Life,” the feel-good Talking Heads romper they supposedly never got around to playing live.
Everyone in the brass band did, though, from Rachel Drehmann (French horn) to Bryan Murray (saxophone) to John Altieri (sousaphone) to Jason Disu (trombone). Winning over the audience, it was scary-fun to see them one-by-one — rounding out with Kelly Pratt (trumpet), Dave Nelson (trombone), Jon Natchez (baritone sax) and Carter Yasutake (trumpet) — step up to the mic and lend their voices, whether they could sing or not.
While diving into eight of the 12 selections from the album, Byrne and Clark didn’t let Love This Giant become the primary focus. And while managing to avoid going on a cliched nostalgic trip, they took turns highlighting their previous work. There were at least three from St. Vincent’s Actor, including a delicious “Marrow,” and a couple more from Strange Mercy. Byrne sprinkled in his lesser-known solo work (“Like Humans Do,” “Lazy”) and a Brian Eno collaboration (“Strange Overtones”) with a wildly popular Talking Heads’ fab four, the grand finale a rocky “Road to Nowhere.” Somehow, it all fit seamlessly into an act that some deep-pocketed producer must be willing to turn into Love This Giant, the Musical.
If it hasn’t already, this tour should make Clark a bona fide Rock Goddess. After seeing St. Vincent perform at the cozy Bluebird Theater in Denver on St. Valentine’s Eve 2010, it was easy to fall in love with the electrifying shredder and writer of her own dare-to-be-different set of intelligent-yet-idiosyncratic tunes.
She was a newborn when Talking Heads hit their stride, and admitted falling for the avant-garde artist’s music after watching Revenge of the Nerds as a kid.
Several younger fans must have felt the same way, feeling the burn for Byrne as they staked out their spot 45 minutes before showtime. Few mentioned Clark, though, and seemed confused by the St. Vincent persona.
Halfway through the 22-song set, that hardly mattered. A 39-year-old woman, a Byrne fan from nearby Montrose, murmured admiringly between songs, “She’s like a porcelain doll.” Obviously she was transfixed by a blonde Clark, impeccably styled in a dark blue outfit exposing a bare midriff, gliding across the stage with the greatest of ease.
The precision-like robotic choreography she shared at times with Byrne was a superhero marvel, and if the intention was to show off Clark as a futuristic Goldilocks, it achieved the desired effect.
Byrne also was a heavenly vision. With a full head of hair that matched the rest of his attire, he looked like a sharp-dressed wedding cake topper before removing his black jacket. During band intros, which also included drummer Brian Wolfe, Clark thanked the man she called the “White Wizard” who “converted us all to David Byrne-ism.”
They both had true stories to tell, as Byrne announced prior to “I Should Watch TV,” his wonderfully quirky take on the medium from Love This Giant. Clark immediately followed with “Northern Lights” (“I saw the morning Northern Lights / Convinced it was the end of times”), then later sent out another “special thank you to David Byrne for being David Byrne” and for making this “literally a dream come true.”
Since everyone was telling the truth, it might not hurt to tell an honest-to-goodness personal story that ties into the theme of hero worship.
A loyal follower brought his fearless wife and an uninitiated Colorado couple to their first Talking Heads concert for a shared third anniversary celebration at Denver’s Rainbow Music Hall in October 1979.
Flash forward to 1983, with the Talking Heads in the middle of their heralded Stop Making Sense tour. A sports journalist who always aspired to be a music writer turned another friend on to them at a euphoric Red Rocks show. Two months later, he patiently waited alone on the concourse of New Orleans’ Municipal Auditorium long after seeing Byrne, Jerry Harrison, Chris Frantz and Tina Weymouth play “Burning Down the House” for the second time on that October night.
Byrne’s signature on a tiny ticket stub was surprisingly easy to get, but it took a trip to the fringes of the French Quarter to track down the band’s husband-and-wife rhythm section.
The series of shows that evolved into one of the best rock concert movies ever featured Byrne’s Big Suit and his lamp dance during “This Must Be the Place.” He reinvented that tune (without the lamp) for the singalong crowd in Telluride, helping connect the dots from the past to the present.
Watching Byrne unselfishly share — or sometimes remove himself from — the spotlight with a perfect match who one day may be his unequivocal equal, it was impossible not to root for the purposeful bookkeeper standing in the front row, still hanging on to a sliver of hope. Knowing my experience three decades earlier still meant something today only intensified that feeling as the show went through the requisite number of encores.
To some, an autograph might seem like an insignificant scribble on a scrap of paper, but to a devoted disciple with a sense of history, it’s signed proof that a profound link was made.
If the tiny woman’s attempt to physically get to Byrne ultimately failed, she can take some satisfaction in making a momentary metaphorical connection with the lanky legend, who before leaving the stage smiled broadly while seemingly catching a glimpse of her homemade expression of love.
For others at the Ride who danced the night away but whose autograph-hunting days are in the rearview mirror, the Byrne/St. Vincent coupling was simply a sign of the good times. They don’t have to end, even if you’re nearing 60.
Honestly, it was fun to feel like a fan again.
Concert photos by Michael Bialas. See more from the 2013 Ride Festival.