Since 2007 Chicago tribute group This Must Be the Band (TMBTB) have paid homage to Talking Heads, and only Talking Heads. You may be thinking how can anyone accurately represent Talking Heads? They were one of those special bands who surface but once in a lifetime. From my perspective Talking Heads were ahead of their time in their heyday, and arguable no one has caught up to them. With that in mind TMBTB must be good unless they would not be worth reading about, right?
TMBTB are no novelty tribute band. Rather they are a collective of talented musicians who embrace the eclectic energy of the music. It is unlikely that the original Talking Heads will ever reunite and that is where TMBTB come in: they charge fans with infectious funky grooves that are impossible to ignore, keeping the music alive and well.
On Friday September 30, 2011 TMBTB sold-out the Vic Theatre in Chicago with the fourth annual live reenactment of Talking Heads’ legendary 1984 rockumentary Stop Making Sense. At 9:30pm a crowd of 1,400 people faced a bare stage, minus one lone mic. The house lights dimmed and front man Charlie Otto strolled onstage carrying a boombox in his left hand and an acoustic guitar slung around his right shoulder. Bearing a striking resemblance to a young David Byrne, Otto wore a two-piece slate-cream suit and white tennis shoes. He approached the mic, surveyed the crowd and set down the boombox. In his best Byrne timbre he said: “Hi. I got a tape I wanna play.”
Otto hit play and an electric drumbeat sputtered from the P.A. He strummed over the beat on his guitar to the tune of “Psycho Killer”, the opening number from Stop Making Sense. Fans were ready for everyone sang along in unison, and even added extra “oh oh ohhhh ei ei ei eiiii’s” to the chorus as one.
At the end of “Psycho Killer” Otto was joined onstage by the Tina Weymouth of the evening, bassist Jamie Jay. Adoring a khaki onesie-wrap, Jay warmly smiled at Otto and together they played the tarnished beauty “Heaven”. During the song back-up vocalist/dancer Tawney Newsome, standing in for Lynn Mabry, sang harmonies from backstage. Her physical absence confused a few newbies while adding celestial color to the song.
Towards the end of “Heaven” the stage crew wheeled a drum set perched atop a raised platform onstage. Drummer Larry Beers posed as Talking Heads’ Chris Frantz appeared sporting a bright blue polo shirt and a wig to match Frantz’s quaff. “Heaven” faded out, and as a trio Beers, Jay and Otto rolled into “Thank You for Sending an Angel”. The remaining core member Scott Harres, disguised as guitarist/keyboardist Jerry Harrison, entered stage fourth for “Found a Job”.
As the first set rolled on gear and instruments were gradually introduced to the stage. The show unfolded in phases creating an unconventional live music experience bordering on performance art. Back up vocalists/dancers Newsome and Kesey Foster (as Ednah Holt) surfaced with percussionist Drew Littell (representing Steve Scales) for the funked up synthsation “Slippery People”. The tune featured complex polyrhythmic beats demonstrating the power behind TMBTB’s rhythm section. Reacting to the beats were Foster and Newsome with animated, erratic rhythms set with whirling and twirling on the left edge of the stage. The song’s playful, agitated new wave funk grabbed the venue’s attention and commanded everyone to dance.
Final members Jim Dinou on synthesizer as Bernie Worrell and Brian Adams on guitar as Alex Weir joined the party for the hit “Burning Down the House”. For the first time that evening, the once empty stage was occupied by nine musicians, all of whom ran and bounced in place while playing without missing a beat.
Set one ended with crowd favorite “Life During Wartime”. Otto abandoned his guitar allowing him to roll around and twitch on stage, exactly like Byrne in the film. He proceeded to exercise his will to live through wartime with a series of aerobic drills. He did jumping jacks through the chorus, and jogged circles around the stage with Foster and Newsome during a synthesizer breakdown. While the three were running through the battlefields the rest of the band played as if their lives depended on it. At the conclusion of the song Otto said: “Thank you. Does anybody have any questions?”
The band was on fire having perfected every detail of the film right down to technical dexterity, hair cuts, dialogs and mannerisms. They were no amateurs for they returned to the stage in a blink wearing new costumes that matched the film. Otto returned with slicked back hair and picked up an electric guitar. Eventually they added sentiment with “This Must Be the Place (Naïve Melody)”, the song that influenced TMBTB’s name. As a family Jay, Otto, Foster, Newsome and Adams stood in a horizontal lineup near the front of the stage. Placed in front of Otto was a tone of home, a tall thin floor lamp with a comforting sepia glow. Otto suavely danced with the lamp through the bridge, dipping and swaying to the main theme.
My personal favorite moment of the evening was an interlude with the Tom Tom Club, a Talking Heads branch of band that featured Weymouth and Frantz. Tom Tom Club’s tones ditched the worldly, art funk sound of Talking Heads and experimented with more dance-ready hip hop beats. Their hit “Genius of Love” made it into the final cut of Stop Making Sense, originally providing Byrne time to change costumes.
Jay took the lead vocals on “Genius of Love” and absolutely killed it. She strutted around the stage with playful angelic mischief, matched by funky flirtatious bass lines. Jay approached the mic and every lyric with sheer conviction making her role quite believable. Foster and Newsome backed her up with vocals and synchronized dances, as Beers drove a steady beat and interjected with sharp “chaaa’s” and “ohhh’s.” TMBTB transitioned back into the Talking Heads with the new wave funk of “Girlfriend is Better”, featuring the infamous oversized suit. After snapping a few of the suit I succumbed to the music, ditched my camera and started to dance.
Stop Making Sense came to an end with “Cross Eyed and Painless” which began with a reprise of the main guitar melody. TMBTB were so on top of detail that they brought Stop Making Sense to an official close with two bonus songs that appear after the film on DVD “Big Business/I Zimbra” and “Cities”. Instead of leaving the audience pumped up on kinetic energy TMBTB returned with an extra hour dedicated to audience requests.
In total TMBTB threw down three hours of almost uninterrupted Talking Heads delights all while running, jumping, kicking and skipping to the beats. As people filed out of the Vic dancing ensued in the streets of Sheffield Ave. Unfortunately all good things come to an end, including evenings of spectacular music.