Oddly enough, in one way Talking Heads (never “The”) resemble The Beatles: Each band has distinct phases where their music takes them to an unexpected realm and people who declare themselves fans of either band usually express a strong preference for their favorite phase. The Beatles went from exuberant rock and roll to lyrical love songs to psychedelic experiments to, finally, Abbey Road, which touched on all of these. Talking Heads began as sparse and nerve-jangling, moved (with the help of Brian Eno) to become densely polyrhythmic explorers, which led to their most lasting cultural moment – the big-band show (and film) “Stop Making Sense,” and closed out as slyly family-oriented social satirists.
That’s a lot of changes in approach, instrumentation, and songcraft to cover, but to their credit, Start Making Sense, a six-to-seven member Talking Heads cover band, is ready to take it all on. They return to the Middle East Downstairs Saturday Sept. 6. Hailing from Bethlehem, PA, the group is devoted to delivering the complete Talking Heads experience. That means re-creating both the early foursome of “Talking Heads ‘77” as well as expanded, interlocking sound of “Remain In Light.” More tellingly, for SMS, it means doing the songs they – as hardcore fans – love, along with the hits that everyone now claims to love. “Psycho Killer,” sure, but also “Uh Oh, Love Comes to Town,” “Love à A Building on Fire” and “The Girls Want to Be with the Girls.” Start Making Sense does this at every stop in its tour through Talking Heads’ catalog; its show is an imitation (or “tribute,” if you must), but it’s constructed for the deep-cuts fan, not the “Best of…” ones.
From their mid-Seventies outset, Talking Heads had a certain underground popularity, but I think many people were put off – or at least puzzled by – frontman David Byrne’s cornucopia of quirks — mostly the high voice that kept cracking and leaping off pitch and his awkward stage presence. “I wish he could sing better,” more than one guest told me when I’d put on one of their recordings. While he gained more control over it while years went by, Byrne’s voice is both highly distinctive and often borderline painful. So it’s fascinating the Start Making Sense’s frontman, Jon Braun, has somehow (and I’m guessing this was not an easy process) managed to sing eerily like Byrne. He doesn’t do a note-for-note (in my experience with Heads’ live shows, neither could Byrne), but he captures that semi-strangled sound that resolves into an off-kilter high note and then … well, sometimes it’s like tracking a balloon that you’ve let the air out of, watching it fly around the room. Regardless of how high your esteem for Talking Heads may be, I can’t believe anyone played their music and said, “I want to sing just like David Byrne.” Braun did … and does.
There’s more, of course. The band is adept at duplicating the music itself and shifts gears and eras easily. They’re also having fun playing this music, and because they play in small venues that enjoyment is infectious. You come away not only thinking that they did a killer version of “Take Me to the River,” but also a mighty fine “The Great Curve.”
And at the end of the day, that’s the value of Start Making Sense. They exist to bring you the most complete Talking Heads experience they can. Hits and B-sides, experimental to established. And face the facts: Talking Heads ain’t touring any longer. Start Making Sense is.
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