One of the most iconic bands to come from the 1970s New York punk scene was probably the least typical of bands of that era. Talking Heads, dressed in khakis and Oxford shirts and fronted by an impossibly long-necked singer, stood out in a sea of tough looking, leather-jacket clad bands. But the band was notable in the downtown music scene for far more than its sartorial sense. The music held greater complexity than their contemporaries’ three-chord compositions with lyrics of much greater depth.
While members of Talking Heads may have gone their separate ways in ‘91 and venues where they performed like CBGBs and The Mudd Club have long since closed their doors, Talking Heads tribute band Start Making Sense is committed to bringing the band’s music and the experience of hearing it performed live.
The origins of Start Making Sense lies in a bar band that guitarist John Fadem and lead singer Jon Braun were playing in. They had a regular weekly gig at the Funhouse in Bethlehem. One night, after playing a couple of Talking Heads songs, the owner approached them with an idea.
“She suggested, ‘Why don’t you do a whole night of just Talking Heads music?’” Fadem recalls. “The response was really good so we decided to keep it going.”
Eight years later they still play the music of Talking Heads. Start Making Sense will return at 10 p.m. Dec. 9 to the River Street Jazz Cafe. In addition to Fadem and Braun, the Lehigh Valley-based band is rounded by Steven Brunette on percussion and backing vocals, Brad Murray on keyboards, Bill Melcher on bass , Nick Levinos on bass, Jesse Braun on drums and Kathleen Weber on backing vocals.
Through its 16-year history, Talking Heads grew in various ways, often in whatever direction lead singer David Byrne was interested in going. That often meant the addition of musicians around the core group of Byrne, Chris Frantz, Tina Weymouth and Jerry Harrison. And as the band’s configuration grew and changed, so did the arrangements for many of their songs. This evolution has left the members of Start Making Sense with the ability to pick and choose the version of some songs they like the best.
“Most of the arrangements that the band does come from the ‘The Name Of This Band Is Talking Heads’ album,” Fadem said, referencing the first solo album from 1982. The two-record set featured live recordings from between 1977 and 1981, a period over which the group expanded from a quartet to a 10-piece ensemble.
“Especially the second disc where they had brought in (founding member of Parliament-Funkadelic) Bernie Worrell on keyboards and (former Frank Zappa and David Bowie sideman) Adrian Belew on guitar. Personally, that’s my favorite lineup of the band. I think because of the instrumentation we have, we wind up doing a lot from that album,” he said.
While some tribute bands concentrate on replicating a specific artist’s sound and some elements of their stage show, Start Making Sense took things one step further. They recreated an entire Talking Heads concert from the instrumentation to the choreograph – the one that was filmed by director Jonathan Demme as the movie “Stop Making Sense.”
“It was something we had been wanting to do for years,” Fadem said. “It was the perfect venue too, because the stage (at Bethlehem’s Lehigh University) is really big and the wings need to be really big because the stage sets slide out. The sides need to be big enough to hold the risers for the keyboards, the drums and the percussion.
“It was a big production. We hired a bunch of people to handle all of these individual aspects of it. We had techs for all the specific instruments. We brought in vintage keyboards to match what they played.”
The recreation of “Stop Making Sense,” led the band to change up how they play some of their material.
“We actually had to go back and research all the specific things for those (song) versions and kind of had to relearn a bunch of the songs,” Fadem said. “Right now a lot of the songs that we are doing are based on the arrangements that were in the film.”
While Talking Heads only had a few songs considered radio “hits,” its catalog of music is extensive. Fadem recalls a recent two-night stand in Chicago where the group played two shows each night and didn’t repeat one song. In addition to this wealth of material, the band plays material generated by some of the side projects that members of Talking Heads worked on over the years.
“’Genius of Love’ (by Weymouth and Frantz’s side group, The Tom Tom Club) we learned pretty recently because we had to do it for (the ‘Stop Making Sense’ recreation),” Fadem said. “We also recently started doing ‘Like Humans Do’ from one of David Byrne’s solo albums. We also do ‘I Want To Dance With Someone,’ the Whitney Houston hit, but the version Byrne did for ‘Austin City Limits.’
“When we return to a venue that we’ve played previously, we try to make the set list different,” Fadem said. “The amount of songs we have in our catalog is pretty big. We have a lot of material to draw from and we like to change it up whenever we can.”