The Talking Heads‘ Stop Making Sense was a hugely successful concert film that redefined the live music experience in the 1980′s. While the movie was released almost 30 years ago, the show leaves an impression that will always feel contemporary. I remember watching the film over and over when I was a teenager, trying to figure out why I loved it so much. It wasn’t until I started writing this article that I finally saw Stop Making Sense as a piece of interactive artwork meant to feel more like a theatrical performance than a concert.
The film is structured like a story or a play with specific props and reactive characters. While the script of Stop Making Sense is made up of Talking Heads songs, the film’s purpose was not to showcase their music, but to incorporate it into what was happening on stage. More than almost any other band, The Talking Heads understood the visual element to their music.
Enter This Must Be The Band.
Formed in 2007, this young group of musicians only plays Talking Heads music. While they mostly stick to all request shows, in 2010 they finally decided to tackle Stop Making Sense. The goal of the performance is to replicate the concert movie note for note, scene for scene. While they try to limit the differences between their recreation and the film, a precise replication will never be achieved, nor should it.
On November 9th, for the fourth year in a row, TMBTB recreated Stop Making Sense in their home town of Chicago. The concert begins with Charlie Otto walking out onto an empty stage looking like a sales man, only he carries a boombox in his hand instead of a briefcase. In a convincing manner, informs us he has a tape he wants to play.
Otto then sells his pitch with the song, “Psycho Killer”.
This is the first time we are introduced to our main character’s neurosis. David Byrne, the original front man of the Talking Heads, is extremely hard to capture and over the years Otto has learned to nail this persona. At certain points in the song he seems to have no control over his body and a nervous energy forms as he awkwardly twitches across the stage. As an observer, you can’t help but connect with whatever it is that is so strange about him.
The scene evolves over the course of the next six songs. Equipment gets wheeled out, the crew sets the stage piece by piece, and the cast takes their places. Building the scene as the show progresses gradually increases the energy emitting from the stage. It is quite a process before the whole band is finally all there for the powerhouse hit ”Burning Down the House”. This evolution of the scene and deliberate emphasis on execution is much more obvious in real life when compared to the film. The fact that the stage production seems simple is very intentional and it showcases the avant garde elements of the show.
While watching this all unfold, I found myself extremely sensitive to what was happening on stage. Facial expressions, the way the band moves, and the way they interact with each other were more impressionable in the live setting than on film. Vocalists Kasey Foster and Trawny Newsome danced in sync with each other and with the rest of the band throughout the show. While this also takes place in the movie, watching the synchronicity in real life pulled together all the members on stage into a unit. By the time TMBTB slammed into “Life During Wartime”, the whole band and most of the audience was running in place. And, just like that, everyone in the room became invested in this performance.
Throughout Stop Making Sense, our main character neurotically controls how the show unfolds like the ringmaster of a circus. The show then feels like it’s losing control when he exits the stage for the Tom Tom Club’s ”Genius of Love”. A spotlight creates a larger than life shadow on the stage’s backdrop when he finally reenters the scene for the set’s next tune; “Girlfriend is Better”. As he emerges to the front of the stage, we notice his morphed silhouette is actually the result of a costume change into an oversize suit. This iconic large suit makes his head appear small and exaggerates his presence on stage.
Part of the reason TMBTB’s Stop Making Sense recreation is so successful is because it captures the art of the situation, the complexity of human interaction and a sensitivity to what is happening on stage. These things can not be duplicated from one performance to the next and they are very difficult to capture on film because camera angles and edits cut out a lot of these elements. When the show is recreated, tiny details of how each scene was put together stand out loud and clear.
While This Must Be The Band pays close attention to all these details, it is impossible to recreate the energy of a performance, no matter how many variables are controlled. This is not a bad thing, in fact, this is what makes Stop Making Sense a memorable performance worth experiencing over and over again.
Stop Making Sense Photos
This weekend Phish will be taking over Chicago for a three night run at Northerly Island. With Saturday already sold out, Kuroda sporting a new light rig, and a completely revamped venue, this is bound to be a throwdown! But the party doesn’t stop there! Quite a few Summer Camp favorites are playing late night shows all around Chicago this weekend. Here’s a little heads up on some don’t-miss late nights for those of you heading to Phish….
Friday night the funk machine better known as Dumpstaphunk will be playing the House of Blues in Chicago. Their newest album, Dirty Word (available for pre-order), is about to drop at the end of the month, so this late night is guaranteed to get DIRTY!!! ”We are touring in support of the new Album, so people will definitely hear new material,” says drummer Nikki Glaspie. Not to mention that the HOB is one of the few venues in the Midwest to have a spring floor, which means you have no choice but to get down the minute the music starts and getting down is exactly what NOLA’s Dumpstaphunk is known for.
Chicago holds a special place in Dumpsta history. It was at the Mid back in 2011 that drummer, Nikki Glaspie, played her first show as an official member of Dumpstaphunk. In two short years she has brought the band to a whole other level. This late night will be a funky dance party through and through. What a great way to kick off the weekend!
If you are not familiar, Gamehenge was the setting of a musical masterpiece Trey Anastasio developed in college for his senior year project way back in 1987. It is basically the story of a man on a journey to get the goods. I won’t give away too much, but lets just say this album was the platform on which Phish was constructed. So in the same fashion that Phish grew into the beast it is today, Spread throws down some heavy improvisation in every song they play. They are guaranteed to split open the Hard Rock Cafe and we might even get a ”Wiiiillllllsoooon” tease thrown in the mix.
Finally, Summer Camp’s favorite late night act is doing what they do best by providing a Talking Heads dance party until the wee hours of the morning. This Must Be The Band will be playing Martyrs 7/20 and 7/21. Their first set on both Saturday and Sunday will be all request, where the loudest person in the crowd gets to choose what gets played next (so long as it’s Talking Heads music). The second set each night will be Speaking in Tongues, note by note. How neat is that?!
Needless to say, Summertime Chi is in full swing, SCampers! This weekend is going to be the type where the party just doesn’t stop…. So get out there and get your groove on!
The moment Charlie Otto sauntered onto the Vic stage, politely asking you to listen to a tape he wanted to play, you were magically looped back to 1984. Not Orwell’s 1984, but David Byrne’s where big suits, spandex clad fly girls, and lamps are perfectly acceptable dance partners for the evening if the mood strikes.
This Must Be The Band is one of the only Talking Heads cover bands in Chicago. More importantly they also are the most adept at conveying an accurate representation of the actual band members down to their mannerisms. Charlie Otto is to David Byrne as Day-Lewis is to President Lincoln. He simply owns the characters likeness so much that one can almost forget who is onstage until, out of costume, Otto reminds taking a few requests once the performance portion of the evening is complete.
Byrne (Charlie Otto) opens wearing white shoes with the familiar drum cadence of “Psycho Killer” and is alone onstage with his acoustic and boom box. As the gunfire puts him into a spastic whirl stumbling like the last scenes of “Scarface” he is joined by the core members of the band in each of the first four songs. With each successive song, Byrne is cumulatively joined onstage by Tina Weymouth (Jamie Jay) for “Heaven” (with Lynn Mabry (Tawny Newsome) providing harmony vocals from backstage, second by Chris Frantz (Alan Maniacek) for “Thank You for Sending Me an Angel”, and third by Jerry Harrison (Jim Dinou) for “Found a Job”. Performance equipment is gradually wheeled out and wired up to the bare stage between and throughout the performances, as Talking Heads continue to be augmented by several additional musicians, most of whom had extensive experience in funk: back-up singers Lynn Mabry and Edna Holt (Kasey Foster), keyboardist Bernie Worrell (again played by Dinou), and percussionist Steve Scales (Pat Sweeney). The first song to feature the entire lineup is “Burning Down the House“. The energy when the first lyrics burst onto the full fervor crowd is palpable. Lighting is key and TMBTB nailed it on one of the most important tracks. Certainly the song built to a crescendo perfectly and the crowd responded by singing the chorus throughout. The audience also held a fixation upon a singular white balloon as they toyed with it which fit the evening’s jovial atmosphere. Like Byrne it flitted about on a whim seemingly unable to find a comfortable resting place. Otto truly captures Byrne’s idea that music should be experienced and not just listened to and TMBTB’s devoted fan admiration can be viewed as a sign they represented to the highest level of flattery.
Byrne leaves the stage at one point, to allow the Weymouth–Frantz-led side-band the Tom Tom Club to perform their song “Genius of Love“. There was much funky love laid down by Jamie Jay and Alan Maniacek, and the dressed to impress Wedding Singer themed crowd let loose their inner 80s in a spectacle not soon to be topped.
Without a cast and crew equally dedicated to representing the others involved the project would fall flat and not have as great an impact. Many can sing and act like Byrne, but few groups are lucky enough to interact with a full band while blocking the stage movement in perfect choreography. Every run in place, arm condor swing, and crawl on the floor with a microphone move are executed without a forced feel. One thing I read Byrne wanted to achieve by giving a full view of everything happening on the stage was to ensure that interactions between the performers would not be lost with choppy camera shots. TMBTB is not mimicking the movement onstage, they become it and live it live through the audience.
True to the DVD version TMBTB played three tracks “Big Business”, “I Zimbra”, “Cities” before inviting the stage crew back onstage to take applause and join them for a song and a few requests. The umpteenth installment of their annual gig recreating “Stop Making Sense” sold out before the doors opened ensuring TMBTB has “Found A Job” at least for one evening each year. Otto’s side project Savvy is scheduled to play Martyr’s 11/30 along with Dozens and Magic Box.