David Byrne: Live at Union Chapel Review

David Byrne finds himself in an unfortunate position with the release of Live at Union Chapel insofar as comparisons with Stop Making Sense, Jonathan Demme’s exemplary record of Talking Heads’ 1983 tour, are going to be inevitable. This is mostly due to the classic status that documentary now enjoys (it’s certainly the finest concert film of the eighties, with only Prince’s Sign o’ the Times posing a realistic challenge), but also the fact that, to date, fans of Byrne and Talking Heads wishing to purchase his material on DVD have had only this and one other title available. That said, Live at Union Chapel is a sufficiently different affair so as to not exist entirely in Stop Making Sense’s shadow. In the intervening 19 years (this concert having been recorded in 2002) Byrne has, of course, become a solo performer as well as a less flamboyant one; a simple shirt adorned with a Martin Luther King quote replaces the oversized suit of yesteryear. He also has a wider, more diverse range of songs to draw on, and the set list here is pleasingly eclectic: a handful of Talking Heads favourites; some highpoints from the solo career so far; the recent success that was the XPress 2 collaboration, Lazy; plus a couple of rarities and a trio of unexpected cover versions, one from Verdi’s La Traviata, one of Whitney Houston’s I Wanna Dance With Somebody, and one taken from the soundtrack of Emir Kusturica’s controversial Palme d’Or winner Underground.

That each of these covers is pulled off quite successfully lies as much with the musicians Byrne has assembled as it does his ear for a pop tune. Eschewing for the most part the synths and guitars that were used for Stop Making Sense in favour of a string sextet plus bass and percussion, the sound they create is both far gentler and much looser. (Interestingly, the use of strings adds a Curtis Mayfield dimension to Byrne white boy funk.) The perfect demonstration comes during What a Day That Was which despite no great change in tempo or vocal delivery sounds far more relaxed that it did circa 1983. Moreover, the musical stylings also succeed in complementing the chapel setting, and unsurprisingly it is the quieter, more delicate moments, such as God’s Child and The Accident, which come of best - though that’s not to say that the obvious crowd pleasers (Life During Wartime, Lazy, Road to Nowhere) don’t do just that.

Indeed, the audience’s reaction is there to be seen courtesy of a democratic filming style which spends as much time away from Byrne as it does placing him centre stage. (As an alternative witness 1973’s Ladies and Gentlemen, the Rolling Stones with its Mick Jagger-fixation resulting in little feel for what the gig was actually like.) Unfortunately, this also means that the viewer is subjected to some faintly embarrassing, not to mention plain bad dancing, although the blame doesn’t entirely lie with the filmmakers; Byrne encourages as much during his between-song banter (note that the various subtitles are present for the various bits of chat, not the actual song lyrics).

It should also be noted, however, that the overall style is far more televisual than cinematic, hardly surprising considering that this release is, despite the change in title on the packaging, identical to the BBC4 Session that has screened on that channel on a number of occasions. As such the disc also has the problem of the song titles and - bizarrely - Byrne’s name flashing up at the start of each number, plus the breaking up of the set with interview fragments relating to whichever track is coming up next (Byrne offers his reasons for writing The Great Intoxication, for example, or his justifications for covering Whitney). Whilst the appearance of the titles may be annoying, it is these informal little chats which prove most frustrating as they undeniably after the set’s flow, one which has obviously undergone a lot of consideration. So much so, in fact, that it would be churlish to bemoan the lack of personal favourites (Girlfriend is Better, say), as it is difficult to ascertain exactly where they might fit. Of course, the chapter skip better can be employed, yet removing them entirely from the main feature and instead providing them as extras would have been far preferable.

The Disc

No extras to speak of beyond song credits, but the disc does improve on previous television screenings with its presentation. The picture now comes with anamorphic enhancement whilst remaining just as sharp, plus there is a also a DD5.1 sound option alongside the expected stereo. There isn’t, admittedly, a great difference between the two (certainly not to the extent that those without 5.1 capabilities should be disappointed), though there is a greater, more apparent richness to the meatier, more energetic numbers - Lazy, This Must Be the Place (Naïve Melody), et al.

Note that despite being a UK release, this disc is presented in the NTSC format.

Track Listing

Nothing But Flowers
And She Was
Once in a Lifetime
God's Child
The Great Intoxication
Un Di Felice
The Revolution
Sax and Violins
This Must Be the Place (Naïve Melody)
What a Day That Was
Like Humans Do
UB Jesus
Life During Wartime
I Wanna Dance With Somebody
The Accident
Road to Nowhere

7 out of 10
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out of 10

Last updated: 13/06/2018 13:18:17

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