Live music galleries: David Byrne [2018]

(I got the idea for this series while sifting through the ‘piles’ of digital photos on my laptop. It occurred to me to share some of these great pics from some of my favourite concert sets from time to time. Like my ‘Vinyl love’ series, these posts will be more photos than words but that doesn’t mean I won’t welcome your thoughts and comments. And of course, until I get around to the next one, I invite you to peruse my ever-growing list of concerts of page.)

David Byrne and brain, live on atage, September 2018

Artist: David Byrne
When: September 13th, 2018
Where: City stage, CityFolk Festival, Ottawa
Context: So I wrapped up my best albums of the year series a few days (and it already feels like years) ago so I thought I’d squeeze in one last post before the end of the year. And what better to focus on but my favourite live set of the year. Yes, David Byrne. I’ve already mentioned on these pages how surprised I was by his performance when I posted about how he managed to squeeze his way into my top ten albums for the year. I’ve been a fairweather Talking Heads fan over the years, loving some songs obsessively but never to the point of investing in more than their greatest hits compilation and certainly not enough to check out much of Byrne’s solo material. So when he was added to Ottawa’s CityFolk, I was curious but I only decided that I would see him for sure in the handful of days leading up to his set. I had no idea what to expect but it definitely wasn’t what I witnessed that night. It was a complete performance. Art and pop joined as one. Minimalist stage set but one that changed the idea of concert, a new idea of space. He had an incredible 11 piece band backing him but even they bucked against the standard ideas for what concert performers should be, equal parts marching band and stage actors. All dressed in matching grey outfits, all movements choreographed, and none tied down by elaborate drum kits or cords of any kind. Byrne was both ringmaster and lead player, running through a catalogue that pulled from his Talking Heads days, solo work and collaborations, with, of course, special focus on his latest album, “American utopia”.
Point of reference song: I dance like this

David Byrne and Chris Giarmo
The killer percussion section
David Byrne, of course
Bobby Wooten, David Byrne, and Angie Swan
David Byrne and the band
Daniel Freedman, Mauro Refosco, Davi Vieira, Gustavo Di Dalva, Angie Swan, and Karl Mansfield
Chris Giarmo, Tendayi Kuumba, Angie Swan, and David Byrne
Mauro Refosco, Davi Vieira, Daniel Freedman, and others
David Byrne and Bobby Wooten
David Byrne close up

Happy new year everyone!

Best albums of 2018: #1 The Decemberists “I’ll be your girl”

After The Decemberists’ relatively recent hiatus from recording and touring, I found myself very surprised to learn in January of this year that a new album was forthcoming so soon after their seventh release. Indeed, it had felt like “What a terrible world, what a beautiful world” had just been released, when in fact it was actually three years before. My initial miscalculation was likely because I had just seen the group the previous summer and they were still out supporting that previous album. So yeah, surprised I was but it was even greater when I heard the first single, “Severed”.

Much has been made in the press and otherwise about the Portland-based indie folk group’s change in sound on their latest, this album, “I’ll be your girl”. Frontman Colin Meloy, himself, has admitted that they drew from their teenaged crushes on Depeche Mode and New Order when they decided to add synthesizers to their already large arsenal of instrumentation for this album. Indeed, at first listen, it is almost jarring to a long time listener but the more you listen, the more you realize that this is still the Decemberists you know and love. And really, the band has never shied from experimentation and dabblings in different styles and genres. They’ve done the sea shanties, twee and indie pop, prog rock, and run the folk gamut from American to British to Eastern European traditions. Synth pop à la Decemberists is the welcome and next logical progression, no? Just nod yes.

The Decemberists are also known for their songwriting, especially the clever lyrics by Colin Meloy, and this is still very much a touchstone of this album. He’s been less esoteric and more accessible on recent works and here, he continues the trend, though there are still a few moments that will please longtime fans and cause casual listeners to scratch their heads. What I love about this album, though, like a few others we’ve already seen on this list, is that our songwriter addresses the madness that seems to be increasing around him but chooses to face it with positivity rather than hatred and anger. It’s an album that makes me happy whenever I put it on and I think that’s a great reason for it to be considered the best album of the year.

Have a listen to the three selections below and perhaps they will make you happy as well. However, if cheeriness is not the main quality by which you choose your favourite album of the year, I’d love to hear what you’ve got at the top of your list in the Comments section after the post.


“Sucker’s prayer”: This first pick is actually an exception to the upbeat rule of the rest of the album. I mean, really, just listen to the chorus: “I’ve been so long lonely and it’s getting me down. I wanna throw my body in the river and drown.” It’s so over the top that we know this can’t possibly by Colin Meloy singing autobiographically. It’s also thematically prototypical to what we used to imagine Country music to be, down in the dumps where nothing can go right. And the music is right there with it, downtrodden blues buried deep within Americana piano tinkles and sustained organ. And that aforementioned chorus begs to be sung along with, come on in, have a drink, cry a little, and join us in prayer.

“Severed”: As I mentioned above, this one here was the first single and teaser we got from this new album and what a shock it was to some. I admit myself to playing it and still being surprised even after hearing the whisperings on the internet. My wife Victoria was sitting across the living room on her tablet and asked “Is that The Decemberists?!”. I could only nod and play it again. The synthesizers set the tone right from the start and throw you off the scent but once you find it again, you definitely remember why you love this band. It’s a song that rocks. It roars along like a black car on an old deserted road, its bright lights laying down the path on its suicide mission.

“Once in my life”: This final selection was the second single released off the album and also its opener. It begins with Meloy singing solo to the strum of his guitar, making a plea to universe not unlike that of Morrissey in a certain Smiths classic. Yet this is The Decemberists and things pick up from there, the bass slides in, backing vocals join in, instruments are added, including the surprising but welcome synthesizers, and the piece becomes joyful. The accompanying video is one that continues the theme of hope and it was while reading Colin Meloy’s statement upon it that I learned his son Hank is autistic. In his words: “When I’m out in public with Hank, I’m acutely aware of the world’s attachment to social and behavioral norms; in these situations, Hank’s otherness can suddenly be put in stark relief. Through the lens of Jacob’s [the video”s protagonist] joyful and defiant movement in Autumn’s video, we see a man shrugging off the constraints of an unaccommodating and judgmental world and truly reveling in his body and mind.” Yep. I need say no more.


In case you missed them, here are the previous albums in this list:

10. David Byrne “American utopia”
9. James “Living in extraordinary times”
8. The Limiñanas “Shadow people”
7. The Essex Green “Hardly electronic”
6. Colter Wall “Songs of the plains”
5. Middle Kids “Lost friends”
4. Spiritualized “And nothing hurt”
3. Nap Eyes “I’m bad now”
2. Frank Turner “Be more kind”

You can also check out my Best Albums page here if you’re interested in my other favourite albums lists.

Best tunes of 1991: #8 The Wonder Stuff “Welcome to the cheap seats”

<< #9    |    #7 >>

Last week I posted how I discovered the Levellers and the song at number nine on this list (“One way”), all because they had been compared to The Wonder Stuff, and this week, at number eight, we have the band themselves and their hit single “Welcome to the cheap seats”.

It was my friend Elliott that introduced me to The Wonder Stuff, having loaned me their debut CD, “The eight legged groove machine”, a few years after it was released in 1988. There was something about it I connected with (more on that another time) and when I learned they had a more recent album to explore, I jumped on it. I brought “Never loved Elvis” home on cassette and immediately after popping it in my stereo, I noted the striking difference in sound from the debut. Instead of short, peppy, and snarling post-punk, we had fiddle-laden folk-rock but yeah, okay, it was still short and peppy and still had its snarling moments. And did I still love it? Oh yes.

I later learned that the change wasn’t as abrupt as all that but an evolution of sorts when I picked up their sophomore, ‘transition’ album “Hup”. The original four piece of Miles Hunt, Malc Treece, Martin Gilks, and Rob “The bass thing” Jones had become five by the third album, after “The bass thing” had left for America after the sophomore, was replaced by Paul Clifford and they added fiddler and multi-instrumentalist Martin Bell. The Wonder Stuff released four albums in total during their original run before splitting up in 1994. I distinctly remember where I was when I heard the news: out camping with the boys, taking down a dead tree with a dull axe and when my friend Tim arrived with the news, it came down post haste. (And it had a few extra hacks in it for good measure.) They have since reformed, dissolved again, and the name resurrected by frontman Miles with a different set of musicians.

But back to 1991 and “Welcome to the cheap seats” – “where your life’s seen through cracked spectacles.”

It’s brief and upbeat but old-school sounding, like a sped-up waltz, filled with anachronisms and metamusic – it’s what me and my English lit friends in university might have pretentiously termed ‘pre-neo-anti-post-postmodernist’. If you’ve seen the official video (sadly, I don’t have it below), you’d have seen the band dressed in pseudo-Victorian garb, playing their instruments and dancing about an absurd and surrealist set. You’d also have noticed (and if you had a keen ear, you might noticed anyway) that that is Kirsty MacColl singing backup, lending her lilting vocals as she has with many an artist, most notably, Morrissey, Billy Bragg, and The Pogues. And there’s another guest musician on the song, adding her accordion to the already folk-laden palette: none other than Spriit of the West’s Linda McRae.

So you see why I love this tune yet? Enjoy.

For the rest of the Best tunes of 1991 list, click here.