By Nathan Turk
The stage lights faded like a flashbulb after a shot, leaving naught but David Byrne’s outline: still, guitar held out at neck-level like a gun, head bowed. As with careful poses, the veteran art-funkster’s sync-ups with lights and music left indelible mental images, like this one, which closed his secondLandmark Theatre encore on Nov. 29.
But the local stop of his tour to support his and Brian Eno’s new disc Everything That Happens Will Happen Today(Todomundo), despite the painterly visuals, rarely sat still. For most of the two-hour show, three dancers swooped, pirouetted, leaped and mimed, sometimes in tandem with Byrne’s three backing singers, often with ecstatic energy, as if grooving privately to the music with just a few more choreography lessons under their belts than the rest of us.
Sketches of the set’s various personnel and instrument placements looked, in this reporter’s notes, like sports plays devised by the insane: little tornados of almost a dozen figures, air-swimming, cart-wheeling, dosey-do-ing amid microphones, guitars (with and without strings), bass, keyboard, drums and various hand percussion including what were perhaps starfish on sticks. Photos of the tour’s earlier gigs at www.davidbyrne.com suggest that the former Talking Heads leader went as all-out for little ol’ Syracuse as he has for Chicago, St. Louis and San Francisco. That meant not only the full white-clad personnel (literally all white, right down to Byrne’s watch) but a set list that spanned from the Heads’ heydays (“Burning Down the House,” “Life During Wartime”) to his solo work, including curios such as his 1981 score for the Twyla Tharp dance project The Catherine Wheel. That album’s “My Big Hands (Fall Through the Cracks)” was reprised here as a robo-groove number with wheezing-machinery ambience courtesy of keyboardist Mark Degli Antoni, the most versatile of Byrne’s band members tone-wise.
Of course, Byrne’s tag-team efforts with Eno were well-tapped, too, with around half of Everything That Happens popping up. “My Big Nurse,” a pensive number swathed in faux pedal steel, pointed at the hope we can find amid life’s bedlam: “I’m counting all the possibilities/ for dancing on this lazy afternoon,” he sang, at one point swaying with eyes fixed heavenward beside his dancers. But Byrne, 56, isn’t necessarily a sold optimist; in “Life is Long,” he reflected on being “sawed in half by the passage of time,” and in the title track showed a little shell-shock from everyday life: “I heard the sound of someone laughing/ I heard my neighbor’s car explode.”
His strategy, like any good artist’s, isn’t necessarily to come to a conclusion about the way things are, but merely to acknowledge reality on the way to escaping it; Byrne’s has always been through funk, in whatever permutated fashion it comes out as. Bassist Paul Frazier and drummer Graham Hawthorne, like the Talking Heads’ Tina Weymouth and Chris Frantz years ago, built thick, interweaving train tracks of rhythms that Byrne roared down with his rhythm-based strums and nervous quaver of a voice. The sense of forward movement, even with textural detours and economical solos here and there, was indelible.
And while the result, like with Talking Heads, was infectious, one couldn’t help but wonder if dancing and smoking herb (with no offense meant to this reporter’s seated neighbors) wasn’t quite a worthy response—at least in itself. Byrne is a cerebral musician, and if you were to feel inclined to dissect the particulars of his Afro-urbane, gospel-confessional, theater-informed art-rock, you’d have lots to ruminate. Like, for example, do those white outfits (protocol for every show on his fall 2008 tour, it seems) imply innocence or surrender? And what does that weird line in “Houses In Motion” that goes, “I’m walking a line, visiting houses in motion,” really mean? And how does Byrne get so friggin’ funky on rhythm guitar without ever using a wah-wah?
Well, the latter, at least, was easy to answer for the Landmark crowd: it’s not the knifelike chords alone, but the crazily powerful convergence of backbeat, voice, low end, sweat and motion. “Houses in Motion,” whatever it’s about, stirred up everything good about this traveling troupe and sustained it until the lockstep beat’s last note, after which a standing, screaming ovation was offered up. It was hard to believe the set had begun just 25 minutes prior.