David Byrne has doggedly insisted on living in the musical present. But late into a two-hour set at the Strathmore Music Center on Sunday night, Byrne, performing jointly with new collaborator St. Vincent, offered a fleeting moment of arena-rock release. At the sound of the pulsating guitar intro to the Talking Heads’ classic “Burning Down the House,” the largely middle-aged audience collectively leapt to its feet with a fervor that indicated a pent-up desire to dance.
However, Byrne, adoptive New Yorker that he is, all but declared, “No soup for you!”
Despite having turned 60 this year, Byrne hasn’t retreated from the front lines of sonic experimentation; he recently released, with Annie Clark (St. Vincent is her stage name), a typically adventurous album called “Love This Giant.” The bulk of Sunday’s show was given to cuts from that album, plus a handful that Clark and Byrne have released on their own. It was very much a shared-spotlight affair, with Byrne often receding behind Clark, a Bjork-like soprano who also happens to possess a digital armory of angular, fuzzed-out guitar licks.
Byrne and Clark were backed by a drummer, keyboardist and a funky eight-piece brass section that choreographically hit its marks as if in a fringe-theater musical. For the Clark-fronted “Cheerleader,” this ensemble — which even included the guy with the big bass tuba — lay on the stage, with a zombie-like Byrne popping up his head during each refrain.
In stark counterpoint to the band’s coruscating grooves and polyrhythms, and Clark’s shimmying, apparition-like presence, Byrne was a man out of place. Topped with unruly gray hair and wearing black-and-white saddle shoes, he could have been mistaken for an eccentric partner in a small-town law firm. On songs such as “Like Humans Do” and “I Am an Ape,” he was a wry people-watcher at least one remove from his fellow human critters. “Wanted to know what folks were thinking/To understand the land I live in,” he sang-rapped on “I Should Watch TV.” For the Talking Heads’s “This Must Be the Place (Naive Melody),” Byrne featured a series of dance-like movements that might generously be called robotically minimalist.
Clark, at 30, is half Byrne’s age, but cut from the same convention-defying cloth. Byrne relished the chance to accompany her on the meanderingly, oddly infectious melodies of “Save Me From What I Want” and “Cruel.”
The intergenerational pairing, the crazy-quilt of traditional and house rhythms, the offbeat visual presentation — it all added up to a kind of show you’d never seen or heard before. Much to the chagrin of his former Talking Heads bandmates, David Byrne will not have it any other way.
Galupo is a freelance writer.