Review: David Byrne and St. Vincent get moving at the Greek Theatre

David Byrne and St. Vincent, also known as Annie Clark, shown performing at the Greek Theatre. In an essay, Byrne warns that creative people are being priced out of New York City, to its detriment.
(Mariah Tauger / For The Times)

Social studies morphed into physical education when David Byrne and St. Vincent played the Greek Theatre on Saturday night.

The two New York City musicians reached Los Angeles near the end of a North American tour in support of “Love This Giant,” a striking album-length collaboration on which the former Talking Heads frontman and the singer-guitarist born Annie Clark ponder the gleaming surreality of 21st-century life: holograms, plastic surgery, community reduced to “a global franchise, one department store,” as Byrne puts it in “I Should Watch TV.”

In the studio, Byrne and Clark outfitted their singing and guitar playing with lush brass-and-reed arrangements and stuttering beats programmed by producer John Congleton; it’s a record that overflows appropriately with information.


Leading a 10-piece band that included eight horn players, the duo preserved the music’s intricate textures at the Greek. In “I Am an Ape,” Byrne and Clark blended their voices carefully, while “Outside of Space and Time” opened on a slow-motion fanfare of shifting wind-instrument tones. Byrne joined the accompanists (or at least appeared to) during “Ice Age,” lifting a bugle to his lips in a way that made it unclear whether he was actually playing along.

Yet for much of Saturday’s concert, which complemented material from “Love This Giant” with tunes out of each artist’s songbook, the two seemed more interested in rhythmic momentum than in harmonic complexity. They were looking to start a party, basically, and had no trouble doing it, even as they sang about the cost of labor in “Lazarus” and “a time of confusion” in “The Forest Awakes.”

When Byrne asked, in “Who,” “Who shouts out hallelujah? / Who’s gonna sing out loud?” many fans volunteered themselves loudly.

Part of what made this approach work was the show’s staging, with the horn players moving around on their feet instead of sitting behind music stands. The choreography was simple but effective, particularly during a jubilant rendition of “Lazy,” Byrne’s 2002 single with the English club act X-Press 2, and Talking Heads’ “Road to Nowhere,” which occasioned an appealingly goofy conga line.

The dancing lightened the philosophy in the lyrics, but it also gave that philosophy a sense of usefulness in the material world.

And it made you think about the similarities and differences between Byrne and Clark, whose creative partnership might contain the least sexual chemistry of any couple ever. (For a 60-year-old man and a 30-year-old woman, this fact represents real progress.)


What do they share? Both of them mime a lot onstage -- in “Lazy” it was synchronized air-chopping -- and wear their electric guitars fairly high on their bodies. And they both use a certain blank-faced expression you don’t see much in musicians these days.

Yet each communicates distinct feelings with that expression. For Clark, it’s a way to match the savagery around her, as in her steely performance Saturday of her song “Cheerleader,” from last year’s excellent “Strange Mercy.”

“I’ve seen America with no clothes on,” she sang, “But I don’t wanna be a cheerleader no more.”

Byrne, meanwhile, was projecting a kind of outsider’s bemusement, his head tilted back slightly as he cataloged the everyday behavior in “Like Humans Do.”

The singers’ sensibilities converged during the first of two encores, in a performance of “Burning Down the House” that Clark preceded by explaining that her earliest exposure to Byrne’s music had come when the song was featured in “Revenge of the Nerds.”

Lending guitar to the ensemble’s spooky but propulsive sound, Byrne seemed OK with that method of discovery. The song could be a portent, or a dance tune, or a piece of junk-culture detritus. Or it could be all three.