David Byrne and St Vincent – review

Roundhouse, London
There's 30 years between them, but David Byrne and Annie Clark are in perfect harmony

Fifteen minutes before showtime, birdsong is chirruping through the Roundhouse. It rises over the heads of the well-dressed, grown-up audience, followed by the buzzing of insects, then a roar of thunder. The din is interrupted by a chirpy Scottish-American, speaking offstage, asking us not to watch the gig through a gadget. David Byrne sounds like a character from a David Lynch film. Tonight's mood will only get more otherworldly.

This isn't the first time Byrne has done something strange at this former train-turning shed. In 2009 his Playing the Building installation involved the wiring up of a pump organ to the rafters; anyone could hit its keys and make mechanical sounds rattle out. Tonight Byrne is present in person, and joined by St Vincent – aka Oklahoma singer-songwriter Annie Clark, with whom he wrote and recorded an album, Love the Giant last year – plus a brass octet who won't simply be blowing into their mouthpieces. Indeed, this gig will be another attempt to use the Roundhouse in a different way.

The next two hours are a glorious experiment in musical arrangement and choreography, combining songs Byrne and Clark wrote together, plus solo compositions. Every song performed tonight involves some kind of dance routine in which every musician takes part. In Love the Giant's jaunty I Am an Ape, the brass players march in and out of a circle. In St Vincent's Save Me from What I Want, instruments are lifted, lowered and wriggled in perfect formation. There's even a pogo-ing sousaphone player who must have muscles on his muscles. Hardly anyone leaves the stage, so every move has been memorised. Now that's what I call effort.

In the midst of everything, Byrne and Clark move like mechanical creatures or marionettes. Byrne hammers away at the air like old Father Time in his braces; Clark inches forwards and backwards like a cuckoo-clock character in sky-high heels. The scene looks like something out of a fantastical children's book, and the music suits it. The brass adds a jubilant New Orleans spirit, mixed up with moments of post-punk skronk; the effect is one of a joyously wayward Tim Burton soundtrack.

Everyone on stage is presented as an equal, which sends a clear message when it comes to the main players: we're not watching a Talking Heads legend making do with a blond-haloed indie ingenue (who tells us she first heard Byrne's music as a child in 1984 high-school comedy Revenge of the Nerds). Instead we're seeing musical partners who met at a Radio Music Hall benefit in 2009 and decided to collaborate a few years later; the 30-year age gap quickly becomes irrelevant.

It was Clark's idea for the pair to write for brass, and the collaboration has obviously energised Byrne. Performing his 2008 Brian Eno collaboration, Strange Overtones, halfway through the main set, he looks like he's been plugged into the mains. The pair also have fun with their dynamic. A theremin battle during The One Who Broke Your Heart is the show's highlight. Byrne uses karate chops to get the electronic instrument wailing, while Clark uses her guitar neck and flying golden curls.

This set up also makes you realise how good St Vincent really is. Standing stage-front, legs astride, looking like a bad-ass Marilyn Monroe, her unusual guitar-playing creates fascinating textures around the band. Her widescreen, abstract songs are stunning too, with The Party being a particular beauty. "I licked the ice cube from your empty glass," she sings, her voice a mercurial, ravishing thing. In The Forest Awakes, the first song she and Byrne wrote together, she is lit wonderfully, her dancing image projected on to the stage wall like a music-box ballerina. Every detail is perfection.

Byrne's big hits are also energised in this setting. Lazy, his 2002 dance hit with X-Press 2, is given new energy from the urgent trombones – the crowd go impressively wild in response. Galvanised versions of Talking Heads' Burning Down the House and The Road to Nowhere also fire up the encores. Then the band's drummer grabs a tambourine and leads the gang off like a fabulous circus troupe. There's entertainment that's out-of-this-world, then there's this.


Jude Rogers

The GuardianTramp

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