This post is about a week overdue for reasons that aren’t particularly interesting (got a little busy, got a little virus, etc.), but here goes.
If, in order to save humanity, I were forced to give away all but 20 of my albums, odds are good that the remaining collection would include Talking Heads’ Remain in Light and Lucinda Williams’s Car Wheels on a Gravel Road. The former is, in my judgment, the apex of a great band, where their more exotic influences were consumed, tamed and fused with their own jittery punk rock sensibility to create a bracing, enduring masterpiece of brooding, high-concept funk. The latter, quite simply, is the most perfectly realized vision of any singer/songwriter working in the alt.country field. The yearning in the words, the well-worn creak in the voice, the tremolo of the guitar – these things get me every time.
And so it was my great pleasure last week to see Talking Heads’ mastermind David Byrne and Lucinda Williams play on back to back nights, from seats in the first four rows, at the same theater in my hometown.
As has been noted here before, Byrne recently released Everything That Happens Will Happen Today, his first collaboration with Brian Eno in roughly a quarter century. When he hit the stage last Sunday night, Byrne first explained that the evening would consist of songs produced in collaboration with Eno, including songs they created with “other musicians,” the only oblique reference of the night to Talking Heads, who Eno produced on More Songs About Buildings and Food, Fear of Music, and Remain in Light. To understand my glee at this, project yourself back to age eight, and imagine your mother saying that tonight’s dinner will consist of Smarties, taffy and Cool Whip.
The show that followed the announcement exceeded even those expectations (imagine if, for an encore, mom presented a dessert of powdered sugar donuts and Twizzlers). With no opener, a prompt start (8:15 on an announced 8:00 p.m.), and a tight, briskly-paced set, the night was perfect for the roughly 75% of the crowd who had to get home to relieve babysitters. Byrne was one of eleven figures on stage, all clothed head-to-toe in white, in an ensemble that included three back-up singers and three dancers, whose quirky choreography – sometimes featuring Byrne himself – reflected the off-kilter energy of the music.
Byrne opened with “Strange Overtones,” the first single from the new album, and segued into “I Zimbra,” the lead track to Fear of Music. After that, it was off to the races, with new songs seamlessly integrated with the old. An early high-point was the rousing slow-boil of “Houses in Motion,” a key Remain in Light track. But the show really began to take flight mid-set, when Byrne played the elegant, pristine “Heaven” to set up the murderer’s row that followed. “Crosseyed and Painless” was sheer catharsis for the packed house, and the one-two of “Once in a Lifetime” and “Life During Wartime” sent the show through the roof. Maybe it’s because there has been no one to play these songs for the past twenty years – and maybe because some, like me, never saw Talking Heads live – but it all came off with a fresh intensity that eradicated any trace of nostalgia.
The first encore began with the crowd-pleasing “Take Me to the River,” but the second encore provided the biggest bang. After playing “Air,” the lush Fear of Music track, Byrne swapped out his electric guitar for an acoustic and announced that “this next song departs from the dogma of the evening.” He then played the stuttering opening figure to “Burning Down the House” (from the non-Eno Speaking in Tongues), and proceeded to do just that, sending all us middle-aged crazies into paroxysmal fits. The hymn-like title track to the new project followed, and then we all walked out into the night, minds thoroughly blown.
Lucinda’s show on Monday could not have possibly lived up to what we saw the night before, and it didn’t. But the comparison is unfair. I haven’t seen five shows in the past fifteen years that could have satisfied that standard.
A Lucinda Williams show is complicated, because she’s complicated, at once enormously gifted and deeply damaged, unable to believe that she is as great as she really is. I’ve seen Lucinda triumphant (on the Essence tour) and tentative (the times I’ve seen her since), but on this night, she walked a line in between, comfortable in her skin but more humble than she has any need to be. It’s amazing that the woman who wrote “Crescent City,” “Sweet Old World” and “Drunken Angel” would lack for confidence, but she seems to need the encouragement of a good audience to have faith in herself, and when that wave of affection comes back at her, she seems genuinely surprised. Good natured but a tad sheepish, she soldiers on and finds that the crowd loves every song. Twice, she almost apologetically introduced songs from “the album we released on Rough Trade,” and it was all I could do to resist shouting “it’s called Lucinda Williams,” wishing that she would own up to her talent.
Still, it was a fine set, twangy and swampy and - relatively rare for her - happy. Through the bouts of stage fright, a contentment showed through. Her band Buick 6 (led by longtime accomplice Doug Pettibone) wrapped her in a comfy, crackling cocoon, on a rocking, bluesy set that perfectly matched her moan-at-the-ceiling drawl. And by the end, when she let loose with covers of Waylon’s “Mamas Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up to be Cowboys” and AC/DC’s “It’s a Long Way to the Top,” everything began to flow in the right direction.