St. Vincent, Beastie Boys' Ad-Rock Join High Schoolers in David Byrne-Curated Tribute to Color Guard: Concert Review
Is there any figure in popular music as persistently, publicly curious as David Byrne? Whether pioneering collage music with Brian Eno, fusing African funk with chilly New Wave, or helping introduce Americans to Tropicália and Afro-Peruvian sounds via his Luaka Bop label, the Talking Heads frontman has spent four decades looking for obscure forms of creativity and finding out what happens when unlikely ingredients mix.
That's precisely what Contemporary Color does, despite the fact that Byrne wrote only one of its ten songs and had nothing to do with its impressive choreography. Instead he has turned his audience's attention toward a discipline most urban sophisticates have never heard of: "color guard," which blends dance, marching-band tropes and theatrical elements into a visually arresting whole. Huge flags, fake rifles and ceremonial sabers are twirled and tossed with precision as youngsters execute moves designed not for the football field, but for competitions in gymnasia.
Having encountered color guard in 2008 when a team asked to use one of his compositions for a routine, Byrne eventually concluded that the best way to expose it to new eyes was to pair high-school ensembles, who usually perform to prerecorded soundtracks, with live musicians. Stars including St. Vincent and Nelly Furtado signed on, agreeing to write music for teams from such locales as Syracuse, NY and Somerville, NJ, then turn up to perform in person. After a premiere in Toronto, the show moved to New York in late June via a first-ever collaboration between Barclays Center and the Brooklyn Academy of Music.
The sports arena filled up Sunday night with an unlikely crowd — an audience where it was often easy to guess who was drawn by the eclectic musical bill and who was the parent or sibling of a high school performer (aka a "guardie"). The staging welcomed both groups, putting the guards front-and-center while helping newbies out with interstitial videos explaining the history of this "sport of the arts." Hosted with almost comic enthusiasm by Ohio sportscaster Mike Hartsock, these short films explored as far back as Ancient Egypt while also featuring This American Life's Ira Glass and composer Nico Muhly.
Unconventional even in this setting, the Glass/Muhly composition was one of the night's most successful. As Trumbull, CT's Alter Ego guard group moved in music to Muhly's elegiac chords, bits of interviews Glass conducted with the dancers were spliced and layered while the focus switched to a particularly impressive rifle-throw or two paths elegantly intersecting. You could hear what was happening in the heads of those on the ground and it was unexpectedly moving, especially given that this performance would be the last one each of these groups would enjoy together before graduation sends some members out into the world.
Several of the routines had easily-grasped conceits: Shenendehowa High School (Clifton Park, NY) climbed on a jungle gym to evoke The Birds in a Hitchcock-inspired piece; St. Vincent provided the soundtrack for a mental hospital in Lunatic, by West Chester, PA's Field of View. Others were more abstract, as when Black Watch (Mount Laurel, NJ) fluidly spilled across the stage in pastels to the beat of Devonté Hynes.
Others were in the middle: Though there was no clear narrative in Every 40 Seconds, the collaboration between Pennsylvania's Mechanicsburg High School and How to Dress Well, its emotional thrust was undeniable. The band's distinctively dramatic synth-dance soundscape accompanied an array of longing-to-connect dance gestures; the dancers' unusually glam wardrobe and makeup (they even ironed their hair in sync, unless there's some kind of chemical straightener in the Mechanicsburg water supply) evoked the exaggerated emotions of adolescence. (A quick search on the piece's title reveals that, according to the World Health Organization, it's the rate of suicides worldwide.)
In general, though, exuberant spectacle trumped subtext, and famous musicians happily took a back seat, rarely doing anything to distract eyes from the floor. (Only Zola Jesus, thrash-dancing in a white dress behind the Brigadiers of Syracuse, seemed to have missed that memo.) The Beastie Boys' Ad-Rock and Money Mark churned away with big, TV-soundtracky grooves as New Jersey's Somerville High School executed some of the night's boldest stage blocking and twirled fantastic iridescent flags. One member of the Ventures (from Kitchner-Waterloo, ON) took the floor trailing massive wings of pleated lamé, doing a bit of serpentine dancing while Nelly Furtado offered the night's poppiest music. And tUnE-yArDs could hardly hope to distract from Emanon, a team from Hackettstown, NJ that wore face paint and LED girdles to turn themselves into robots.
At the end of a day that had seen massive festivities celebrating the Supreme Court's decision on gay marriage, David Byrne introduced "I Was Changed," which he wrote for Longueuil, QC's Les Eclipses, with the night's only ad lib: "Ladies and gentlemen, America has changed." With no elaboration necessary, cheers filled the arena — a precursor to a massive curtain call in which all ten teams took the floor, smiles beaming and flags waving, their not-quite-secret art form now a good deal more famous.