Harrison and Belew Serve Up A Cool Cool Cool Tribute to Talking Heads Remain In Light

For many Talking Heads’ fans, their 1980 album, Remain In Light, is the pinnacle. It’s groundbreaking blend of Afrobeat rhythms, synth textures, obtuse lyrics, Brian Eno’s crafty production and the searing “stunt guitar” of Adrian Belew made it a classic – the disc that put the funk into punk and New Wave.  It was also the album that propelled this art school educated band of newbie groove nerds into the MTV mainstream.  This was a non-stop dance party with cerebral trimmings, a collection of fierce tunes that were always the best parts of a Talking Heads’ live show, something evidenced in the peerless concert film made about their tour to support it, Stop Making Sense.

Last month, the band’s founding keyboardist Jerry Harrison teamed up with Belew and the band Cool Cool Cool to bring a concert celebrating the iconic album to 19 cities coast-to-coast.

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If the March 8th performance at Albany’s Empire Live was any indication, they have achieved their stated goal – to recreate the excitement and joy of the Talking Heads’ remarkable 1980 tour.

The evening opened with a strong seven-song set by Cool Cool Cool, a super slick collective of funkateers with tight vocal harmonies, punchy horns, clavinet soul and stage presence to spare.  The band is comprised of seven musicians who split – dramatically and en masse – from their former long-running band, the popular festival attraction Turkuaz, a year back.  It includes Shira Elias and Sammi Garett (vocalists), Chris Brouwers (trumpet), Josh Schwartz (tenor/baritone sax/vocals), Greg Sanderson (alto/ tenor sax), Michelangelo Carubba (drums) and Craig Brodhead (guitar/keys).  For this tour, the group is augmented by master bassist Julie Slick (Adrian Belew Power Trio/The Crimson ProjeKct) and percussionist Yahuba Garcia-Torres. 

The Prince/Sly Stone/Tower of Power vibes were in evidence from the opener, “Gotta Give It Away,” sung with bravado and David Byrne-like hand gestures by Josh Schwartz (those would return in the next set too!).  Shira Elias distinguished herself with lead vocals on “NAH” and “Tied Up,” while Sammi Garett shined on the ballad ,“With You,” and the baritone sax-driven set closer, “Try.” 

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Cool Cool Cool is not only a joyful party band but an ensemble of players’ players. In a duo of tunes, saxman Greg Sanderson slowly architected long spiraling solos that brought to mind the great Kenny Garrett in Miles Davis’ late 80s/early 90s band.  On “With You,” Chris Brouwers offered up a muted trumpet solo with plenty of spacey echo. It was one that fused his own Milesisms with the prog/ambient leanings of ECM Records’ trumpet great Nils Petter Molvaer.

Harrison and Belew covered 14-songs in their set, most of Remain In Light, along with classics like “I Zimbra,” “Cities” and “Drugs” from their 1979 album, Fear of Music, and “Psycho Killer,” the set opener from their debut disc, Talking Heads: 77.

As he did in King Crimson, Belew handled most of the lead vocals in a style that bears more than a passing resemblance to David Byrne.

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As anyone who’s seen him live can attest, Belew has boatloads of charisma.  He’s got an amiable everyman vibe that invites everyone into the party, while sometimes obscuring his revolutionary talent as a guitarist.  On “Psycho Killer,” he projected the appropriate amount of psycho and slayed with the first of his many animalistic guitar solos on the outro.  The following tune, a rendition of “Houses in Motion,” greatly benefited from the backing vocals Shira and Sammi provided to Harrison’s lead.  And here, there was another revelatory solo from Belew, who made his guitar sound like the Indian horn instrument heard on another Harrison’s The Beatles tunes, the shehnai.

Cool Cool Cool’s horn section ladled on added heft to many of the songs, especially “Cities” and “Born Under the Punches.”  The latter was sung, more so preached with Byrne-like hand gestures, by Schwartz. 

Jerry Harrison enjoyed a solo spot on two tunes, “Rev It Up” from his solo disc Casual Gods and “Slippery People” a much-covered song from the Heads’ 1983 album, Speaking in Tongues.  The first number left space for an obtuse keyboard solo from Harrison and a nice guitar solo from Cool’s Craig Brodhead, who added some funky wah wah clavinet through both sets.  Belew got his solo turn with a high-energy take on “Thela Hun Ginjeet” from King Crimson’s Discipline.  More whammy bar guitar solo torment (a very VERY good thing) from Adrian on this track, one which featured a playback of his recounting his mugging in NYC from Crimson’s original recording.  

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Schwartz was back on lead vox doing his best Byrne for “Once In A Lifetime” and the set reached a peak with “Take Me to the River.”  The Harrison/Belew version had even more punch than the Talking Heads’ original, bolstered by a Stax Records/Memphis stew of horns and backing vocal power. 

The evening ended with a delightfully off-the-rails spin on “The Great Curve.”  On Remain In Light, this tune percolates at 152 beats-per-minute, a hectic pace bettered in this live performance.  It is also the song where Belew first got to fully stretch out on record.  On record and at this concert, he stopped the show with his uniquely “apeshit” brand of Fender Stratocaster abuse, a step ahead in guitaring and stomp box logic that was the natural extension of Hendrix’s “Star-Spangled Banner” at Woodstock

As fan well knows, the likelihood of seeing the original Talking Heads reformed in concert is quite dim.  And Remain In Light itself is one of the sticking points, with songs that grew out of collective grooves and improvs at rehearsals for which Harrison, drummer Chris Franz and bassist Tina Weymouth may not have gotten their due. 

And while he just dropped in to overdub his parts, Belew is another important ingredient without whom this album may not have been quite as iconic and continually relevant to new generations of music-lovers.

Photos by Jarron Childs

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