The Talking Heads released Remain in Light on October 8, 1980. It was the same year that Joy Division’s Ian Curtis committed suicide, Led Zeppelin broke up following the death of John Bonham, and John Lennon was assassinated. It might be glib to say music was at a turning point, but those are some major tectonic shifts and Talking Heads were standing right on the fault line. Their first three records were part of a disparate artistic effort to drag punk into the next decade and Talking Heads themselves were at a crossroads. Remain In Light, fed on upheaval, became an album that nudged the boundaries and still earns critical accolades.
Admittedly, I didn’t know much about Remain In Light in particular or even Talking Heads in general walking into the Kessler Theater last Saturday night. Music fans like myself never know how these glaring holes come to be. Maybe if I’d spent less time on the Galactic Cowboys, Sleater-Kinney, The Toadies or any of Billy Corgan’s shitty between-Pumpkins projects, I could have found some time to study Talking Heads. I appreciate venues like the Kessler who take an almost tutorial interest in Dallas audiences, exposing them to things they never before considered.
For L.A. musician Scrote (you’ll have to have him explain the moniker), the Talking Heads are more mentally at-hand. In L.A., mulling over the prospect of collaborating with an African-influenced band, Scrote had a reflexive thought. “I imagined my stuff with an African band would sound like Remain In Light,” he says. Scrote also believed the idea would have a universal appeal among musicians. “What writers that have been around for 20 to 30 years are in everyone’s DNA,” he asks. David Byrne, he believed, is one of those writers.
Scrote had a lineup with which to play in L.A., but the Indiana-born, UNT-educated experimental guitarist wanted to take the performance on the road, to Central and North Texas. And he wanted to do this with a different, Texas cast of musicians. While none of names leap off the screen, the personnel he assembled is impressively seasoned. Along with a wealth of Dallas session musicians like Jonathan Merla and Arjuna Contreras, Scrote also secured the services of former New Bohemians guitarist Kenny Withrow and Ryan Thomas Becker, who said he was “honored” to share the stage with so many professionals.
In all, the band consisted of three percussionists, two guitarists, two backup singers, a bassist, and a keyboardist. Scrote and Becker traded both guitar and lead vocal duties. In all, there were 11 musicians, just two more than the Talking Heads used for the early ’80s tours following the album’s release.
The show began with Contreras laying down a drumbeat of metronomic perfection. Musicians joined him in stages. First, the percussionists, so that, for a moment, the sound was just a swirl of impressively tight cymbals and skin drums and pops from the snare. Then bassist and keyboardist and guitarist Robert Hokamp playing a dogged, one chord rhythm. And then Withrow making his guitar bellow and squeal. Then, the backup singers and finally Becker and Scrote, at the forefront.
The band played the entirety of Remain In Light, beginning to end, but they played it loosely, collaboratively, capturing the soul if not always the letter of the songs. “The value to me,” Scrote later said of the performance, “is ensemble material, where great players can get together and push each others buttons.”
There was plenty of that. The singers were often engaged in interwoven lyrics, where several refrains battled for supremacy. The guitarists torqued on strings and pushed their guitars to edge of feedback. And the percussionists were always pushing the songs or pulling the reigns, out of reflexiveness more than cue-following. It gave me a sudden and avid appreciation for the Talking Heads, for their extreme funk influence, for their absolute craft. It was arty and it was intelligible and it was heavy and all very good.
One of the brightest moments of the evening was Ryan Thomas Becker absolutely killing the hit “Once in a Lifetime.” Throughout the night, Becker and Scrote took turns executing David Byrne’s challenging vocal lines, which, are “not only an insane amount of words, but really high,” Scrote says. As Becker barked the frenzied neurosis of a mid-life crisis, he invented his own marionette dance in homage to Byrne’s original. Becker was without his security blanket of a guitar, nothing but hand motions and stage-presence. That he executed it so well is only more evidence that he is DFW’s only true five-tool musical artist.
The band closed with two off-album encores, the last of them the cover of Al Green’s “Take Me to the River,” which appears on Talking Heads’ sophomore album, More Songs About Buildings and Food. As they played the final tune, my hero of the night, a middle-aged gentlemen with a shaved head, was flailing on the dance floor, his arms and hips swinging with abandon. It is exactly how I would dance if I had zero inhibitions. Unfortunately, I have so many inhibitions they’ve had to start making appointments.
There is a great value to performances like this that goes too often overlooked. I am convinced now that Remain In Light is meant to be seen live more than listened to on record. The only possible way to generate appreciation for these albums decades after their release is to gather musical talent the way Scrote has done and play the thing live, where it’s electricity can fill a room instead of just a speaker. The performance at the Kessler was the third in three nights and the tenth time Scrote has done this over the past year. For our sake, I hope he keeps running it back.
Photo by Mike Brooks (www.commiebike.com)