When Talking Heads keyboardist and guitarist Jerry Harrison was co-producing the 2014 documentary about Memphis music, “Take Me to the River,” he reconnected with Talking Heads collaborator Adrian Belew, who lives nearby in Nashville. They reminisced about Talking Heads’ 1980-81 Remain in Light Tour, which featured tracks from the gorgeous and experimental 1980 Remain in Light album (including singles “Once in a Lifetime,” “Crosseyed and Painless” and “Houses in Motion”) and earlier Talking Heads songs such as “Psycho Killer” and their cover of Al Green’s “Take Me to the River.”
They focused on a spectacular show at Palazzo Dello Sport in Rome, whose video, now viewable on YouTube (see below), captures the musicians performing in extended jams, with loose improvisation, and with all of them equally emphasized. There is a feeling of being brought in the middle of something special — a feeling of total immersion, with camera angles revealing the band’s exchange of energy with the audience.
With their Remain in Light 2023 U.S. Tour — which comes to the Starland Ballroom in Sayreville on March 5, the Keswick Theatre in Glenside, Pa., on March 7, and Sony Hall in Manhattan on March 9 — Harrison and Belew will aspire to recreate that show’s joyful music.
“I really loved the YouTube video that the TV station filmed in Rome,” Harrison said, adding that there were certain differences between the Remain in Light Tour and the similar 1983-84 Speaking in Tongues Tour, which was immortalized by Jonathan Demme’s concert film, “Stop Making Sense.”
“I thought that the first tour, with Adrian’s amazing solos … the staging was more casual … was all about the music, and it was kind of wilder and less controlled.
“I loved ‘Stop Making Sense,’ but I thought there was something really great about the feeling on that tour and I conveyed this to Adrian. … I said, ‘Why don’t we try to recreate that?’ ”
I wondered if the entire Remain in Light Tour was as exhilarating as the Rome concert. “Yes, though Rome was quite exciting,” Harrison said, adding “the audience was just really excited, but the whole tour was great. Also, it was fresh and we were exploring it. The pencil got sharpened over the next two tours. But there was something about the initial explosion that we had done there. I wanted that to be remembered.”
The current tour’s band includes former members of the Brooklyn-based funk band Turkuaz as well as singer Nona Hendryx, bassist Julie Slick and percussionist Yahuba Garcia-Torres. The tour, originally planned for 2020, was delayed by the pandemic.
“I really didn’t want to use studio musicians,” said Harrison. “I had produced the band Turkuaz and they were coming to Nashville.” Harrison and Belew watched Turkuaz perform and decided “this is gonna work,” Harrison said.
They rehearsed and were ready to tour, but then the pandemic happened, “so we have been making up the dates that were going to be done in 2020 over the last two years,” Harrison said. These were just a few scattered shows, though; their first full-fledged Remain in Light tour begins Feb. 16 at the Ogden Theatre in Denver.
Though Harrison — also an original member of Jonathan Richman’s Modern Lovers band in the ’70s — has made plenty of concert appearances over the last few decades, this is his first tour since 1996. Belew — who also has also performed with King Crimson, David Bowie, Frank Zappa and others — tours frequently, and was in New Jersey last year with his trio (featuring Slick and drummer Johnnie Luca) as well as on a Bowie tribute tour in which he performed with Todd Rundgren and others.
In addition to his success as a member of two groundbreaking and genre-defying bands, Harrison has applied his interests and aptitudes to various projects: as a producer of bands including Violent Femmes, Live and Crash Test Dummies; as co-founder of Ophirex, an organization that focuses on global health and is developing an antidote to snake bites; as co-creator of RedCrow, an investment and marketing company that specializes in healthcare innovation; and as co-developer of the internet music company GarageBand.com. He is currently working with Richman on a new album.
What should fans expect to hear on this tour? “Adrian and I each do a song outside of Talking Heads,” Harrison said. “I do ‘Rev It Up’ from (his 1988 solo album) Casual Gods and he does ‘Thela Hun Ginjeet’ from King Crimson’s (1981) album, Discipline. We also do a version of (the Speaking in Tongues track) ‘Slippery People’ because Turkuaz had done that. I had played with Mavis Staples doing that song (in 2019) and I thought it would be really fun to have the two women in the band sing a song.
“One of the great things about this tour that we will see — and that we have started (in prior shows) — is that everyone in the audience sees that these people onstage are having fun. I wanted to make sure there’s a place for everyone in the band to shine.”
I would love to hear Harrison’s rendition of the stirring Remain in Light song “Listening Wind,” which concerns terrorism and colonialism. David Byrne sang in the original:
Mojique smells the wind that comes from far away
Mojique waits for news in a quiet place
He feels the presence of the wind around him
He feels the power of the past behind him
He has the knowledge of the wind to guide him
I said it’s wonderful that Hendryx will be joining the tour. “That’s right, I can’t wait,” Harrison said. “She played two dates with us only (in 1980). It was mainly Dolette McDonald. Nona actually played in Central Park with us in 1980.”
The songs on Remain in Light benefited from Brian Eno’s contributions as producer and co-writer and were influenced by funk and African artists such as Fela Kuti. The music was recorded in The Bahamas and New York; Byrne’s stream-of-consciousness lyrics came afterwards. The first side contains danceable tunes and the second side is more wondrous and atmospheric.
Talking Heads were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2002; they had four albums in Rolling Stone’s list of the 500 Greatest Albums of All Time and three of their songs were included in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame’s 500 Songs That Shaped Rock and Roll. They played their first gig at CBGB, opening for the Ramones, in 1975 with original members Byrne, Tina Weymouth and Chris Frantz. Harrison joined in 1977 while working on a graduate degree in architecture at Harvard. In 1991, the band disbanded with Byrne and Harrison developing their solo work and Weymouth and Frantz leading their band Tom Tom Club.
In 1996, Harrison, Weymouth and Frantz released an album, No Talking Just Head, under the band name Heads. The four band members last played together in 2002 at their Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction ceremony.
I asked Harrison if he feels that Remain in Light had a deep impact on culture. “I think it did,” he said. “First of all, it opened up the idea of people listening to African music … and musicians being influenced by a new kind of music … the ideas go back and forth. Fela was influenced by James Brown. And when you saw bands like The Police and lots of other bands that suddenly had background singers, (you knew that) people starting following us. When we were doing those tours … it was hard for people to compete with us because there was such joy and excitement coming off the stage.”
He said the influence of African music “was essential, and also the fact that it was a band that was half black and half white, it was a band with women and men … We were groundbreaking at the forefront, acknowledging that this is not just a business for a limited group of people.”
I mentioned that Weymouth made her mark in what was a male-dominated rock environment. “She was one of the first (women) to play in a band and not be the lead singer,” said Harrison. “There was Suzi Quatro … there were certainly lots of women who were singers in bands, but to be a working member of the band (made her) a trailblazer.”
Harrison doesn’t feel nostalgic about playing with his Talking Heads bandmates. “That’s just a remembrance at this point,” he said. “I mean, whenever you play with any musicians you don’t compare it. You just go, ‘Are we grooving? Is it working?’
“I’ve done a number of benefits and memorials with Bob Weir and Lukas Nelson and those were really fun shows, too. But this is great because this is the music that I helped create.”
Harrison said that of the Remain in Light shows they have done so far, the highlight was the Hardly Strictly Bluegrass festival in San Francisco in October. “We had 55,000 people and there was just this wave of joy that went over the audience,” he said. “We are excited to bring that to new audiences.”
Harrison said that band members will share the lead vocals. “There are only certain songs that I felt like I have my way of doing it. So I’m comfortable doing that, and those are the ones I’ve chosen. David has such a unique voice and, having been in the band, it’s a little bit different for me to do it than somebody else. If I can find a way that I’m owning it myself, then I’m fine with it.”
We discussed the New York music scene of the ’70s. “You have to remember, I came to New York with the Modern Lovers before (Talking Heads), so I was pre-CBGB,” Harrison said. “I played the Mercer Arts Center, New Year’s Eve 1972: Modern Lovers played with the New York Dolls and that was an amazing show.
“I felt lucky to be part of it — there are moments in time and space where there seems to be an explosion of artistic expression — sometimes we don’t even know when they are. Like London in 1964 that was captured in the movie ‘Blow-Up.’ You go, ‘I’d love to have been there.’ There was a moment in Seattle with Nirvana, Pearl Jam, really coming out of Soundgarden’s success. That was the place to be.
“I feel really excited that I was able to be in New York at one of those moments. It was like New York was the city to be in. Part of it was that there had been a building glut and there was a recession in the early ’70s, so rents were lower and artists were able to rent loft spaces really reasonably. It created a critical mass of artists to be interacting with each other.
“If you’re in that scene, there’s people who are looking up to you, but the whole rest of the world doesn’t even know who they are. And it was really good for the bands at CBGB that they were ignored for a year or two; that let us all respect each other and not get so competitive. The minute people got record deals, then we were in competition and (thought), ‘Could we cross over to the other audience?’ ”
CBGB’s community was enhanced by its owner Hilly Kristal, according to Harrison.
“I have to hand it to Hilly Kristal,” he said. “If you played in a band that played at CBGB, you got in for free and it was a place you went to hang out and listen to music.”
Harrison reflected further about artistic communities. “There are these scenes. Paris and Berlin in the early ’30s, and The Roaring Twenties. What city did you want to be in if you lived in that time period? I think that 1975 to 1980, New York was one of those places you say, ‘I’ve got to get to New York.’ And so, I feel pretty lucky that I happened to be able to be there at that time.”
I asked if Frantz and Weymouth, who are married and live together in Connecticut, might join him onstage at a nearby show.
“There’s an open invitation,” he said. “We’ll have to wait and see … if they would come, we would love for them to join us. And I would say the same for David, too.”
For more on the tour, visit remaininlight.net.
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