By Ian Nelson
NORTHAMPTON - "You're a genius," an audience member appreciatively yelled to the man in white, to which he humbly said nothing. He needn't reply, not even a receptive "thank you," instead rolling right into another song.
The man in white was David Byrne, who flawlessly played the Calvin Theatre Tuesday night as part of his "Songs of David Byrne and Brian Eno Tour."
It doesn't seem as though Byrne has lost a beat, be it in his voice, his movement, or his odd, undying sense of visual artistry. Those who were born too late to see Byrne's Talking Heads in their prime, or at all, were unimaginably treated to the band's numbers, which still sound as urgent and relevant as they must have back in the late '70s and early '80s.
Byrne was of course not reunited with his original band, but with an apt cast of 10 back-up singers/musicians/dancers, also in all-white, who upped the energy, filled out all the songs as they were originally supposed to feel and brought a youthfulness to Byrne's being which was not necessarily expected.
Byrne obligatorily started the night with some of his new material, which certainly sounded better than on the record. He sounded vibrant, backed by the huge sound of his band, producing a brilliant version of "My Big Nurse," among others.
Before diving too heavily into Talking Heads material, Byrne experimented with some of his work with Brian Eno, going all the way back to 1981 to perform songs from their record "My Life in the Bush of Ghosts" to strange effect.
The songs on record are riddled with samples, or what Byrne called "field recordings" from various sources including radio voices, mountain singers and other found sounds. Byrne substituted those vocal parts with fresh vocals of his own, reviving those songs from 1981 and turning them into something completely different nearly 30 years later.
The whole crew onstage glowed radioactively in various washes of orange, green and blue, an impressive light show to match an equally impressive performance.
Byrne wowed with Talking Heads jam "Houses in Motion" from 1980's "Remain in Light," the dancers interpretively prancing around him while he summoned otherworldly sounds from his guitar. The back-up singers crafted gigantic harmonies which beefed up Byrne's vocal unintelligibly, making him sound like a preaching loudspeaker.
Byrne continued on with a song from his 1981 score to the ballet "The Catherine Wheel" and the slower "Heaven" from the Talking Heads record "Fear of Music" before getting on with some of his real timeless, classic material.
One of these timeless songs played was "Crosseyed and Painless," also from "Remain in Light," a funky excursion into jubilant oblivion. He continued with a joyous version of "Once in a Lifetime," which saw the three dancers imitate floating around Byrne in a fake body of water.
The end of the set saw another landmark hit "Life During Wartime," also from "Fear of Music," which featured an extended individual dance solo as well as Byrne's patented running in place to the song, as featured in their live mega-concert "Stop Making Sense" (1984).
Byrne apparently did not please the audience entirely with just one set of songs, appearing for an encore to uproarious applause. He jumped right into "Take Me to the River," the Al Green song famously covered on the Talking Heads' "More Songs About Buildings and Food" (1978), with the back-up vocal trio heading to the front of the stage to directly accompany Byrne in the bright white spotlight.
Next was "The Great Curve," one of the most euphoric, frantic Talking Heads songs and a welcome 2008 revival. The song was flawless, and again carried them offstage.
Again, Byrne and company returned to the stage, responding honorably to the audience's immense sound. The bunch played "Air" from "Fear of Music" before completely devastating the audience with "Burning Down the House," which isn't even a Brian Eno-collaborative song, but no one was complaining.
This officially brought down the house, but Byrne was not done. He returned to the stage for a third encore to perform "Everything that Happens," the namesake of his new record with Eno, an uplifting gospel-tinged piece suitable for both a final number and the end of a truly transcendent experience. Only if the Calvin Theatre was decked out in stained glass could it have been more of a religious experience.