By Scott Tady
PITTSBURGH — A barefooted, gray suit-wearing David Byrne never stopped moving Sunday at the Benedum Center.
On the eve of his 66th birthday, the spry Byrne gave Pittsburgh fans much to celebrate, with a one-hour-45-minute set filled with funky art-pop, irresistible world beats and a few classic-rock gems.
Every song featured clever dance choreography involving Byrne and his 11 backing musicians, most of them percussionists, and all in matching gray suits. Minus a drum kit or keyboard stand, the band relied on portable, handheld or shoulder-strapped instruments, including African folk percussion, as they continuously weaved in and out from each other in synced-up patterns, like a highly skilled halftime marching band.
Byrne said he met a concertgoer recently in San Antonio who questioned if such an animated show meant some of the music was pre-recorded. Byrne assured Pittsburgh fans every note they’d hear that night would be played live, which earned applause.
The concert started with Byrne alone on stage theatrically holding a replica brain as he pondered its functions in one of his new songs, “Here.” Through his barely noticeable headset mic he gazed at that brain and sung the opening verse, “Here is a region of abundant details/Here is a region that is seldom used/Here is a region that continues living/Even when the other sections are removed” as suddenly his band and two backing singers dramatically emerged from behind floor-to-ceiling silvery white beads that flanked the back and both sides of the stage. They’d dip and dart in and out of those beads all night long. On “Doing The Right Thing” four musicians hid their torsos behind the beads but held their drums out for the audience to see, while another hidden band member kept a lower leg outside the beads just for visual flair.
Byrne’s stage moves encompassed everything from mime to “playing” air maracas to a couple of backward bends that deserve their own yoga position name. As he sung, he marched to and fro, and sauntered around the perimeter of the stage, even busted out a couple of those stiff and chunky Talking Heads-era dance moves.
His voice is, to quote a Talking Heads song, the same as it ever was, as he sang several songs from his days with that pioneering New Wave band, including the funky “Slippery People” and the wonderfully quirky “Once In a Lifetime,” allowing spectators to shout aloud the “My God, what have I done?” part.
The catchy songs kept coming, and it was surprising more Benedum spectators weren’t on their feet dancing to “Toe Jam,” a Byrne collaboration with Fat Boy Slim, and another new one, “I Dance Like This,” with its chorus “I dance like this/Because it feels so damn good/If I could dance better/Well, you know that I would.” The band started that latter song sprawled across the stage like they were sleeping, slowly coming to life.
As peculiar as his songs and stage antics can be, Byrne came across as fairly normal in the handful of times he spoke with the audience. He mentioned the tour had partnered with a group stationed in the lobby registering people to vote, and reminded people that local elections can be more important than national ones.
Byrne grabbed an acoustic guitar and instantly lifted the crowd to its feet by strumming the intro to “Burning Down the House. ” You had to dance to that Talking Heads classic, which sounded great live. The crowd stayed on its feet for the two-part encore that began with the Imelda Marcos-inspired “Dancing Together,” highlighted by South American and African world beats. The band formed a drumline to finish the show with the intense “Hell You Talmabout,” a protest song by Janelle Monáe addressing African-Americans killed in encounters with police.
With Byrne, you get a show with non-stop action that makes you think and move.