The breadth and success of David Byrne’s recent curatorship of Southbank Centre’s Meltdown Festival demonstrate how the curiosity and eclecticism of the man once described as a ‘misfit weirdo’ have become mainstream
‘The question is, am I better than an algorithm or am I not?’ asked David Byrne on his 6 Music radio programme, which coincided with his curatorship of this year’s Meltdown Festival at Southbank Centre last month. ‘My place is to give you some things you like and some things that will surprise you: things that don’t belong in the same category, but I’m going to put them in the same bucket. Although maybe there are smart folks out there who will find an algorithm for that.’
And so Meltdown (and his 6 Live programme) featured a range of artists that to the naked eye looked and sounded a little random. From all over the world, they included the likes of Guatemalan singer Gaby Moreno, a tribute to West African synth pioneer William Onyeabor, Italian singer Carmen Consoli and Spanish flamenco star Estrella Morente, as well as John Luther Adams, Benjamin Clementine, Hypnotic Brass Ensemble and screenings of There Will Be Blood and Planet of the Apes with live orchestral performances (the only ‘classical’ music on the programme, if I have one quibble).
To the David Byrne post-Talking Heads fan, the eclecticism of Meltdown came as nothing of a surprise, though. Byrne has his fingers in many pies: design (a sound exhibition at London’s V&A, connecting an organ to the structure of the Roundhouse in London, and even New York bicycle stands), writing (books about music and bicycle riding, and a compelling blog) and musical-writing (the brilliant Here Lies Love), to mention a few. Each of his own albums in recent years has had a distinct sound, depending on the theme and his collaborators, while maintaining the Byrne ear for beautiful melody and quirky images and words. His own record label, Luaka Bop, promotes diverse and brilliant artists from all over the world who otherwise would not be heard. Indeed I’ve written here about how in his breadth of range and quality of output, and the excitement and curiosity he has managed to sustain throughout his career, Byrne is a role model for any artist, and especially classical musicians, who tend to peak and drop out of their own creative development too soon.
I went to three Meltdown concerts. Estrella Morente is one of the best-known flamenco stars in the world, and it’s not hard to see why. She has a stage presence that forces you to watch her, in that earthy way that makes flamenco captivating: all powerful hand gestures, imperious gaze and simmering passion. Unlike more traditional flamenco acts, Morente smiles, though, and her voice is perhaps more pure and clear than the more agonised and cracked flamenco voices one hears, her songs a little cleaner and, dare I say, some of them happier-sounding. Her fellow musicians deserved and got plenty of attention, too: she is a generous MC and there were various solos while she was off stage. One of the highlights was when the cajon player busted out on his own in a frenzied flamenco dance number, all passion and heels and hair, driving the audience wild, too, even if the antithesis to English manners.
There was less overt passion at Petra Kaden’s Purcell Room concert, accompanied by community choir the Rolling Tones. Her vibe was more laidback, even apologetic: she could certainly take some tips from Morente on commanding the stage. Songs came from her new album Seemed Like A Good Idea and some were covers, including a mellow You Only Live Twice, and Moon River, as well as an up-tempo Where Have All the Flowers Gone. Maybe Byrne didn’t have a chance to vet every single act, or maybe he liked or wanted to give the benefit of the doubt to the clever loops but rather pretentious lyrics and sounds of GABI, which felt more like student electronic music project and had quite a few audience members leaving the hall to wait for the main act.
As well as the music, the whole of the Festival Hall seemed to be flavoured in David Byrne’s whacky spirit. Decorated bicycles dotted around representing his own vehicular passion, and I had a few close-up sightings of him with his white mane and a bright yellow suit during the day and after the concerts, which added to the buzz. The content of his own library was transported to the Festival Hall Poetry Library, which provided a fascinating insight into his preoccupations, and a good place to hang out before concerts. As well as all the obvious subjects of music styles and the politics and history of music, it was interesting to see Stephen Sondheim’s biography there, with his four commandments of writing songs: ‘Less is More. Content Dictates Form. God is in the Details. Clarity.’ For a Byrne-lover, not hard to see how he has taken these rules to heart in his songs.
It was also interesting that he had a biography of another quirky genius, Glenn Gould, and it felt strangely disloyal to read James Woolcott’s book about his time in New York in the 1970s, Lucking Out, with the description: ‘The collegiate clean-cutness of the Heads was regarded with skepticism until they played enough sets for the regulars to recognise in Byrne a fellow misfit weirdo. His vocals, interspersed yips, head jerks, and boogie-down hip action suggested Norman Bates hitting the disco, and as soon as he began strumming the opening to “Psycho Killer,” his certification seemed complete.’
I’m pleased to report that the hip action and head jerks are still going (even if a little less wild and jerky these days), as demonstrated in the only gig I saw him in this time around, in We’re Gonna Die. This is a moving and warm narrative that Young Jean Lee spins, a collection of simple stories from her life that she tells beautifully, and which she has made into songs, which Byrne sang.
In a way, with their cutesy sentiment and simplicity, they didn’t suit him at all, and just showed how sophisticated his own lyrics are (‘You still have me’, ‘You are not the only one’). At first there was a danger that his arch, cool presence might tip the songs into irony. But that was the strange magic of the evening: the gig ended with some goofy-clumsy dancing and the whole audience cheerily singing ‘We’re Gonna Die’ (the most joyous thing I’ve done in ages) and Byrne was right at home, a generous and earnest presence, getting down with the band.
Byrne may still be the misfit weirdo deep down, but in these days of tribal conformity and manufactured cool, he offers a beacon of hope to those of us who stand outside. And even if he has become part of the establishment, as his curatorship of Meltdown indicates, it also shows him staying true to misfits all over the world, and proving that there’s nothing weird about them at all. So, to answer your question, David, you’re so much better than an algorithm, and nothing will ever replace you.