FEATURE: Burning Down the House: Bringing a More Theatrical and Original Approach to Live Performance




Burning Down the House


 IN THIS PHOTO: David Byrne during his American Utopia tour (venue location unknown)/PHOTO CREDIT: Getty Images 

Bringing a More Theatrical and Original Approach to Live Performance


MY eye has been caught by an article on the NME website…


 IN THIS PHOTO: David Byrne and his troupe at the Hammersmith Apollo on 23rd June, 2018/PHOTO CREDIT: Vianney Le Caer/REX

that looked at some modern artists who are doing something different with the live performance. Rather than the usual gig experience – artist/band turns up with a support act and then plays a set and maybe an encore comes – technology is allowing something different to gigs. Not only are we seeing some artists take a more technological approach to gigs but some are taking a theatrical, symbolic and original approach. Talking Heads gigs of old were never normal and predictable so it is no surprise to hear David Byrne bring something beguiling and educational to his latest tour. His American Utopia tour, as NME explain, is more than a man playing songs as we’d expect:

Even if you’ve never been subjected to such pretentious whimsy, everyone’s seen a set a bit like it – a disappointing phone-in effort from an artist who used to break creative boundaries. Like resting on laurels, too many rely on legacy.  It’s why David Byrne’s ‘American Utopia’ tour – hyped to high heaven for completely understandable reasons – is all the more refreshing in contrast, bucking the trend.

Skipping barefoot across the stage, flanked by a roving cast of marching-band dancers who dive in and out of the curtains lining the stage, David Byrne’s show is carefully choreographed, but – as with Christine and The Queens’ current show – it manages to feel very human. It’s the opposite of alienating; the joy is pure and infectious. Even an alien landed straight from another galaxy with no working knowledge of the Talking Heads’ staggering impact would get it straight away. Hell, it doesn’t matter if you’ve only ever heard ‘Psycho Killer’ sampled on Selena Gomez’s ‘Bad Liar’ (banger)...


Tellingly, Byrne also subverts another tradition, too – instead of ending on a huge banger of his own, he swerves in a different direction and closes every show with a cover of Janelle Monáe’s 2015 song ‘Hell You Talmbout’. It feels fitting to see a true innovator using his time in the spotlight to pay it forward”.

I guess it can be quite routine and uninspiring if an artist as established and well-known as David Byrne does the usual gig thing. Rather than have a setlist of Talking Heads songs and solo material; Byrne brings something physical, high-concept and precise to his shows but makes it accessible and, odd, simple. Not only does one – attending his gigs – get the songs known and loved but there is a piece of performance art. Maybe those words lead people to something arty and pretentious but, with Byrne, he is unifying dance, theatre and technology into something magical. The Guardian, when attending one of his American Utopia gigs, provided their take:

This unprecedented, exquisite live show finds a 12-strong band in near-constant motion, with percussion to the fore: at several points, half a dozen musicians are playing bits of drum kits hanging off harnesses they are wearing, a cross between an American high school marching band and a Brazilian carnival procession. (The harnesses are so discreet, the keyboard player’s instrument appears to hover in mid-air.) Everyone is in (normal-sized) grey Kenzo suits and barefoot; by the end, backing vocalist Chris Giarmo’s jacket is entirely black at the back, and Byrne’s own back is piebald with sweat”.


Pop is no stranger to troupe dancing, but working musicians don’t normally move this perfectly, rearranging themselves like psychic starlings into clumps or lines, posing, vogue-ing, proceeding backwards in circles; choreographer Annie-B Parson is the architect of these manoeuvres. You can see the link to a previous Byrne outing – 2015’s US-only Contemporary Colourshows, since released as a film – which found Byrne reinterpreting the US sports pastime known as “colour guard”, where flag-spinners join marching bands for half-time performances.

This set, by contrast, is all grey and minimal and yet somehow just as kaleidoscopic. A huge swath of songs – Talking Heads songs, Byrne solo outings drawn from various periods, covers, collaborations – have all been subtly rescored to fit a show heavy on funk, fun, drama, shadowplay and a sprinkling of overt politics. Between two recent songs – Dog’s Mind and Everybody’s Coming to My House – Byrne encourages everyone to vote “in every election they possibly can”.

Maybe it is more of an American artist thing – as NME’s article explored – but I wonder whether artists are properly utilising technology or developing live gigs. Consider how far music production has come and how we share it: can we really say the gigs and viewing experience has made similarly big steps?! One can never get rid of the traditional and high-energy show – imagine the likes of IDLES or Foo Fighters employing dancers and have something high-concept working away whilst they were thrashing, swaggering and generally owning the stage!


 IN THIS PHOTO: St. Vincent at the Cambridge Corn Exchange on 2nd September, 2018/PHOTO CREDIT: Sonja Horsman for The Observer

There is a division line in terms of the genres/artists who are taking this approach but I feel the art world is divided. We might see albums employing elements of theatre, dance and technology but do we often get to see a gig, from a mainstream artist, like that?! In the case of David Byrne; he is someone who uses music as education as much as entertainment. In tandem with his American Utopia album; he has launched a website dedicated to feel-good stories and has done lectures and, in many ways, brings an academic side to his work. Perhaps it would be odd seeing Byrne performing his epic songs in an ordinary way: bringing in dancers and introducing much more physicality, spectacle and imagination into the mix leads to a more enriching and emotional memory. You will go to a gig, as many have, and come away inspired and changed. This somewhat new approach to live performance has been controversial. As NME stated; St. Vincent accrued some divisive reaction when she tried something new:

Towards the end of last year, fresh from releasing ‘MASSEDUCTION’, St Vincent put on one of the most divisive shows in recent memory. Parring off the convention of a support act entirely (instead she opted to screen her short horror film The Birthday Party) Annie Clark also did away with almost every element that you’d associate with a typical live show. A band was nowhere to be seen; a curtain unfurled to reveal a screaming face instead. Clark performed alone with her guitar, backed by garish day-glo visuals, for the entire show...

Far from indulging the usual patter between songs there was zero audience acknowledgement, and in stark opposition to the brute physicality of her previous live shows – touring ‘St Vincent’ Clark frequently injured herself mid-performance – any movement was clinical and small. Shifting her microphone a metre to the left for one song, turning robotically to her right for another, it was less a gig, more a visual collage. It left some staggered by the bold move towards minimalism; others simply scratched their heads in confusion”.

She was not the only one whose deep messages and thought-provoking material required a performance that seemed to match the lyrics and themes being explored:

Currently on tour in the UK, Christine and The Queens has also taken a turn towards the theatrical, using a cast of charismatic dancers – each with distinct styles and clear personalities – to help pull her audience closer. As with St Vincent’s ‘MASSEDUCTION’ her latest album ‘Chris’ also plays heavily with tensions around power and lust. Except in Christine’s case, she’s largely questioning how these things are typically wielded by women in the spotlight. To cut a long story much shorter, society doesn’t tend to be a massive fan of women in assertive command of their sexuality – Christine and The Queens, however, doesn’t really give a shit about this weird expectation. ”I’m just trying to deflect the male gaze and to sabotage it slightly,” is how she put it, talking to NME for our Big Read with the star earlier this year. “I’m horny, and I desire, and I’m sad, and happy, and joyful.”


IN THIS PHOTO: Christine and the Queens (Héloïse Letissier)/PHOTO CREDIT: Jamie Morgan

In terms of the types of artists who are embracing the unconventional and changing the nature of live performances; it is unlikely to extend much to the Pop mainstream. I think it would be dangerous for someone like Dua Lipa or Ed Sheeran to change what they do considering their popularity and what their fans expect. Maybe it is insulting – not meant to be – but David Byrne and St. Vincent appeal to a more mature and deep-thinking audience. If you had an artist whose demographic was very young and were screaming the whole set then they would not stand for the sort of thing you’d see at a David Byrne gig. Dancers, routines and theatre have always been part of the live show for many artists but there is this small band bucking trends and taking risks with their shows. It is a lot to do with personas and new personalities being revealed. The Christine and the Queens-Chris and St. Vincent-MASSEDUCTION are different to their earlier work! The themes being tackled in these albums – and for David Byrne – are more political, provocative, perhaps, and require something challenging. If these artists simply delivered this big and potent songs as a Pop artist would – or in a more conventional manner – one wonders whether the results would be as emphatic. Consider this review of a recent Christine and the Queens show:

The otherwise sparse stage is adorned for the first act by a floor to ceiling painting of bucolic rolling hills, creating the perfect backdrop for low-slung single Girlfriend and its sprightly choreography.

During the emotionally ravaged Paradis Perdus, the lights on the painting shift and a thundercloud that had seemed to be resting calmly in the distance hovers into view. Later, the screens fall away altogether, replaced variously by banks of lights, plumes of green smoke and fluttering fake snow. At one point, a dancer seems to literally go up in smoke. It is modern theatre cajoled into a pop concert framework...

Joined by six dancers, Chris swaps the supple, loose-limbed movement of her debut for a more animalistic physicality, jostling sweatily with her cohorts on opener Comme Si and providing the centre around which they spin like orbiting planets during a spectacular 5 Dollars. The choreography is so far removed from your typical pop show – at one point, during the harpsichord heavy The Stranger, the dancers mimic the rise and fall of a wave, as if in slow motion – that when they do line up for a typical dance break, as on the horny strut of Damn (What Must a Woman Do), it feels cathartic. As the song crashes to a close, keen to really hammer home the lineage she’s channelling, she chucks in a quick snippet of Janet Jackson’s Nasty for good measure”.

Another artist, who I have mentioned, who is pushing boundaries is St. Vincent. Last year, when she played Brixton Academy, she divided people with a show that consisted of a short film; her playing songs to a simple backing track and no other performers. Last month, when playing Cambridge, this review shows Annie Clark has lost none of her ability to move and cause worried whispers:

The banks of lights at the rear aren’t the only things pulling the crowd’s eyes out on stalks. Everyone on stage is dressed in tight flesh tones which, for a couple of seconds, registers as nudity – save for Clark’s thigh-high dominatrix boots and belt. (The band are in fact wearing leotards, dresses or shapeless jumpsuits)...

Then you notice the male players have bowl-haircut wigs and what look like tights over their faces – as though they are about to rob a bank, or worse. Drummer Matt Johnson (formerly of Jeff Buckley’s band) and keyboard player Daniel Mintseris are featureless mannequins, while the women – Clark and Toko Yasuda, who plays bass and keyboards – get to breathe normally. As a performance, it’s hard to read precisely: of a piece with the plasticity, kinkiness and electronics swirling around the Masseduction songs and their videos, but with the tables turned: Clark is nobody’s vapid eye-candy, but a female musician playing with gender roles, control and abandon; very forbidding, a little inviting.

Does it all get a bit samey? Well, yes – although effective, the heavily stylised aesthetic of this show does grate, and the weirdness that used to be a feature of St Vincent’s output seems in thrall to a number of familiar 80s motifs. Back then, Robert Palmer had a notorious video in which a gaggle of models were dressed up as musicians. Although it’s clear that St Vincent is purposely performing a kind of takedown of that robotic, gazed-upon femininity, after a while, it becomes hard to separate from empty sexiness.

Gradually, though, as the sweat makes its way through her hair, Clark becomes more naturalistic as the set draws to a close. Laughing, she tries to insert Cambridge road names into New York and delivers Smoking Section with a husky, Left Bank feel”.

Perhaps we have not seen a mass movement of artists going against the conventional grain but we have seen some big artists do something very different with their sets. Whether it is risky or a natural evolution of the live set; I think we will see more artists experimenting and bringing a cinematic, theatrical and strange edge to their shows. Whether enflamed and intense like Christine and the Queens; artistic and stunning like David Byrne or a quirkier St. Vincent approach; it is good seeing these musicians try something different. I think one of the reasons why venues are struggling and why a lot of us are not going to gigs is because we know what to expect. The decades-old routine or support acts coming on and then the artist tackling their material in a very normal way sounds sensible but how likely is that show – unless they are truly iconic – going to stick in the brain?! You can bet the likes of David Byrne have left many speechless recently and that, in no small part, is due to the way the live show is approached. Perhaps it will take a while for most of the big artists to follow the likes of Christine and the Queens but I think the results speak for themselves. I want to go to a gig to hear the songs I know and love but I want to be moved and involved in something spectacular and unique. A lot of gigs provide the former but the latter, sometimes, lacks. With innovators and pioneers transforming live gigs and making them more of a spectacle; they are bringing the humble stage to...


IN THIS PHOTO: Christine and the Queens at Bournemouth International Centre on 17th November, 2018/PHOTO CREDIT: Dan Reid   

A new era…