Saints and winners
As The Spin ducked out of a talk by noted Pulitzer Prize-winning author Michael Chabon at the library and made a beeline for the Ryman, we had a sudden realization about our Tuesday night: We were living in a post on a satirical Tumblr blog. Not only had we just seen an author most famous for writing a novel about comic books talk about vinyl records, but we were about to watch David Byrne and St. Vincent be delightful art-rock weirdos onstage at the Ryman Auditorium. Had there been a cart selling kombucha and a DVD copy of Forrest Gump, we would've completely filled our "Stuff White People Like" bingo card. So close!
With no buffer zone between us and the headliner (you may know that zone as "opening bands"), we hustled as quickly as we could through downtown without our customary pre-show sub-$9 beers. Just in time, too. As soon as we reached our pew in the balcony, Byrne's voice echoed over the PA, imploring us to enjoy the show without being glued to our cellphone cameras — at least for a while. He also asked that we not take photos with iPads, which is apparently a thing. People of the world, we implore you to knock that shit off.
After a good 10 minutes of forest and rainstorm sounds, the lights dimmed and out strode an eight-man brass band, looking like they had just come off a New Orleans second-line, with the couple of the hour: Byrne, looking like he just escaped from Twin Peaks, and Annie "St. Vincent" Clark, looking like she just escaped from being an extra in a Tim Burton movie. Or, in other words, looking cool as hell. The band dove in with "Who," the first track of their collaborative record Love This Giant — a brassy, funk-tinged tune that sets the tone for the album (and indeed, the show).
What ensued was one of the tightest, most deliberately choreographed shows we've ever seen and possibly will ever see. Every movement, gesture and weird St. Vincent foot-shuffle was planned out far in advance. This was not the freewheeling Elvis Costello we saw around this time last year — this was equal parts stage music and rock concert. The fact of the matter is that Byrne and Clark's show at the Ryman is the exact show — right down to the band side-project plugging in the middle and second encore — that Atlanta, Chicago and every other stop on the tour got.
Which raises the question: What exactly do we want in a rock concert?
Part of us felt a little disappointed in knowing long in advance that we wouldn't see a brass-band rendition of "Life After Wartime" or "Psycho Killer," but the quality of the Byrne/Clark joint is undeniable. When we say it was tightly performed, we mean it on a molecular level. These were consummate professionals, putting on a show that was so well rehearsed that they could've done it in their sleep. But that level of tightness also meant a sacrifice in the spontaneity that we've come to expect in live music. It's a big reason why we go to see bands — to have a unique experience with the music we already love. Clark doesn't have to crowd-surf in an enormous plastic bubble or anything, but a little variation would've been welcome.
On the other hand, Byrne and Clark completely and utterly killed it. There is no universe in which you could claim that the show was even mediocre. We're already big fans of Love This Giant, but the live horns gave its songs immense weight. That goes triple for the St. Vincent tunes that were worked into the set — notably "Marrow" and "The Party" from her debut. And we're not sure if we have the words for the sheer joy we felt in seeing "Strange Overtones," the single from the Byrne/Eno record, live. Based on the smell of somebody trying to sneakily blaze a joint near us and the crowd's roar of approval, we're pretty sure we weren't alone in that sentiment.
And that's how the two-hour, 22-song set went. The band wove together Talking Heads classics ("This Must Be the Place" and "Road to Nowhere"), Byrne hits ("Like Humans Do" and "Lazy"), St. Vincent jams and the new record for a totally satisfying show that just didn't really defy our expectations. Which isn't to say it was totally without surprise — watching David Byrne throw roundhouse kicks at a theremin during "Northern Lights" was awesome and hilarious — but there's something to be said for calling an audible. But even if it wasn't loaded down with surprises and Ryman moments, we couldn't help but kinda be blown away by David Byrne, St. Vincent and their marching band. Especially the showboating tuba player who high-fived audience members while still playing the song.
Then, after two encores — one of which included a rendition of "Burning Down the House" (because how could you not?) — the house lights rose and we were cast into the streets of downtown at the early hour of 9:30 p.m., giving Byrne enough time to apparently bicycle his way to Mercy Lounge and hang with Antibalas before calling it a night. A show ending before 10 p.m.? Bingo! Where do we pick up our Starbucks gift card?
Grimes and misdemeanors
The Spin entered Mercy Lounge for Grimes Wednesday night and encountered something we'd never encountered in the venue before: piano concertos as house music. We were told the classed-up sounds were at the behest of the artist, though the 30 or so people already glommed up to the stage for the Canadian dream popper hardly seemed to notice or care. We were also told Mercy's fog machine was fully stocked on "fog juice" for the night, which is typically a good sign.
While classical music was raging in the main hall, the Mercy back bar was airing the presidential debates, and a rotating cast of 20 or so showgoing wonks seemed to appreciate the thought. The segue from erudite house music to politics made us want to trade in our beer for brandy and our cigarettes for a cigar: It was an unusual mood to start the night with.
We perused the merch table while openers Myths were up. They're a droney female dance duo with a heavy art-school vibe, which is neither an endorsement nor a judgment call, and their bass rattled our feet through the floor. The merch was more interesting, to be honest: We were told there were vagina rings for sale ("Rings for your vagina?" "No, rings with vaginas on them"). Never turn down lookin' at vagina rings, our grandma always said. The people who liked Myths seemed to really, really like it, but we eventually wandered back into The Politics Den.
Solo act Elite Gymnastics went a full minute covering the Spice Girls classic "Say You'll Be There" before we even noticed what he was doing. It was an almost spoken-word piece, accompanied with a parasol, that came off like an apathetic drag show. The harmonica solo was huff-and-puff Alanis style; we found it enraging. It's entirely possible that our profound love of the Spice Girls is clouding our judgment, but please take pop music seriously. The cover gave us the impression that this was a man who wanted to play with the idea of femininity without coming off as camp, but he severely misfired and came off as mocking. Again: Please take pop music seriously.
Grimes, though! The fog juice was really going to work before she took to the stage, prompting a rando dude near us to note, "It smells like laser tag in here." (Aside to rando dude: Sorry you caught us referring to you as "rando dude" in our notes. You were a total champ about it.) Grimes at last took to the stage with a couple of backup folks who, for all the world, looked like Diva Plavalaguna (the blue opera-singing alien from The Fifth Element) thanks to the blue lighting and sheer body-covering veils. Grimes, meanwhile, visually reminded us of that chick from NCIS while she vocally reminded us of a Furby. The biggest difference, though, between the headliner and the openers is, even though they're all operating in the same ethereal pop world, Grimes hashes out better melodies and pays attention to creating eventual beats. The crowd's dancing slowly morphed from the sort of apathetic swaying last seen in the Hullabalooza episode of The Simpsons to that of people legitimately enjoying themselves. People enjoying themselves — what a concept. That's what happens when you take pop music seriously.