Popular music is all about what's new. Quality is measured by age. The newest of the new is best and the quality decays quickly. It has a half-life shorter than a modern attention span. (Is there a relationship here?) It may be that music doesn't go from good to bad as it ages, it just becomes irrelevant. No self-respecting, trendy cool kid would ever be caught listening to anything out of date. There are always exceptions, of course; the occasional iconoclast that makes an affectation out of listening to Billie Holliday or the Monkees or even REM. But, by and large, the crowd sticks with the new and nothing else.
Almost. Yes, there are exceptions to every rule and the music of the Talking Heads is a big one. Monday night at Red Rocks, David Byrne, lead singer and leader of the Heads brought his tour through Denver for the first night of a two night stand. While a few grey heads bounced along with the rest, the majority of the audience was clearly born right around and mainly after the Heads' heyday in the early to mid-1980s. And, while Byrne played many tunes from his solo career, including several from his latest album American Utopia (Nonesuch, 2018), it was the classic Heads tunes that the crowd knew all the lyrics to and delighted in the most. Perhaps this is a sign that quality really can survive a few decades. Who knew? (Well, Beethoven, Mozart, Coltrane, Ellington and a few others perhaps.)
For his current tour, Byrne has enlisted the assistance of 11 other players, making an even dozen on the stage; most of the time. Somewhat reminiscent of Stop Making Sense (Sire, 1984), both the movie and the soundtrack, the show opened with Byrne on stage by himself. The first song was "Here," the last song on his new album. Gradually, other musicians joined him on stage, just like Stop Making Sense.
The Talking Heads started as a quartet, so when they toured with a total of nine musicians for Stop Making Sense, that seemed like a pretty big band. The band for the current tour is 33% bigger and Byrne invested that entire augmentation in percussion. The Stop Making Sense tour had only two drummer/percussionists, but the current tour has six; fully half the band. The resulting sound was dense, complex and irresistibly danceable. However, one reason Byrne required so many drummers was because none of them could use their feet for drumming purposes.
That's because Byrne's music is currently being performed by (just in time for football season) a marching band. And a dancing band. Everyone had their instrument strapped to their bodies with wireless transmitters so they could freely move about the stage; standard procedure for the guitarist and bassist, but the keyboard player had his keyboard strapped on and he wore it waist high. All the percussionists wore their drums as well. The two backing vocalists required no such special arrangements other than headset-microphones allowing free movement and unfettered arm and hand gestures.
The stage was devoid of amplifiers, speaker boxes and the spaghetti dinner of wires found on almost all concert stages. The crew laid down a special floor on top of the Red Rocks standard issue concrete. That was necessary because the band marched and danced in their bare feet. The special dance stage was bounded by adjustable height curtains on the two sides and the back making for an intimate theater-like ambience, quite different than the typical open Red Rocks stage with the distinctive rock in the back. The musicians occasionally came and went through the curtains.
The result was as much performance art as a standard concert. The players seemed to be in constant motion. Sometimes the percussionists would form a drum circle, other times they would spread out and intermingle with the other players. Byrne often kept to the middle and out front, but not always. He occasionally played guitar while he sang, but mostly, he just sang. He reprised some of his jerky, quasi-spastic movements from Stop Making Sense, especially during "Once in a Lifetime," a Heads classic. While he didn't repeat the laps he ran around the stage in Stop Making Sense, he was in motion more often than he stood still, impressive for a 66 year old and at 6,344 feet above sea level (the elevation of the Red Rocks stage according to Google Earth).
About half way through the show, Byrne took a break to introduce the band and assure the audience that everything we were hearing was coming from the musicians on stage and that there were no prerecorded sounds or loops or other fancy effects. That was an interesting comment and probably necessary in light of some of the glitzy tours by big name pop stars that incorporate prerecorded music and lip synching. It was also a little ironic in light of the opening act, Ibeyi, which did, quite obviously, use some of those very tricks.
One of the most effective effects of the evening was the spotlight used on "Blind." That's a song from the last Heads album, Naked (Sire, 1988). After Stop Making Sense, the Heads went on a diet and shed several band members and returned to a sound closer to their first three albums. "Blind," along with a couple other songs on Naked, was an exception requiring no less than 13 musicians to make it happen. Monday night, a bright spotlight was placed near the center of the stage about four feet high, shining toward the back of the stage. Anyone standing right in front of that light truly understood the meaning of the song being played. Usually, that person was Byrne while the rest of the band roamed behind him. The effect of the silhouettes was to turn Byrne into Gulliver and the remaining band members into Lilliputians. Or maybe they were the 11 dwarves. Either way, it was somewhat comical and, of course, the perspectives and proportions continually changed as Byrne and the band moved around. Musically, the song was one of the highlights of the night even though the considerable horn section from the original was replaced by the keyboard synthesizer. The half dozen percussionists and the visual effects more than made up for the slight lack of punch offered by the lone synthesizer filling in for the six piece horn section on the album.
Another highlight was "The Great Curve" from Remain in Light (Sire, 1980). That one wasn't really a radio hit and it's routinely omitted from Talking Heads greatest hits collections, but it might be the best song on that album (although "Crosseyed and Painless" competes for that title as well). Underpinned, of course, with the urgent and incessant African rhythms found throughout that album, "The Great Curve" also weaves vocal counterpoint in and out of the proceedings, an effect perfectly captured by Byrne and his two vocalists at Red Rocks. The selection of the Heads' tunes came almost exclusively from their most rhythmic period which suited the big band fine because it's certainly the most complex and requires many hands to recreate.
Politics slipped into the evening only slightly on a couple of occasions. At one point, between songs, Byrne suggested to the audience that we all get out and vote, "No matter what your persuasion." The second political moment was more overt when he covered Janelle Monáe's "Hell You Talmbout" as his last song of the evening. The song implores listeners to say the names of blacks who have died during encounters with police or from racial violence. He said he updated the song from its original version from 2015, most certainly because the list of victims keeps growing.
Overall, it was a show like no other on the road these days. The free roaming, choreographed band members (12 of them!), the clean stage with no stray instruments or amplifiers or risers or microphones lying around, the theatrical set-up, all added up to a unique show. And, of course, the music, expertly executed, topped the whole thing off, even if some of the songs were nearly 40 years old.
Set List: Here; Lazy; I Zimbra; Slippery People; I Should Watch TV; Dog's Mind; Everybody's Coming to My House; This Must Be the Place (Naïve Melody); Once in a Lifetime; Doing the Right Thing; Toe Jam; Born Under Punches; I Dance Like This; Bullet; Every Day is a Miracle; Like Humans Do; Blind; Burning Down the House; Encore: Dancing Together: Great Curve; Second Encore: Hell You Talmbout
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