By Dave Tianen
It would be difficult to think of a second generation rock artist who has done more to push the boundaries of rock music than David Byrne.
Building on the example of the Velvet Underground, in the ’70s and ’80s, Byrne and the Talking Heads took the basic vocabulary of rock and roll and fused it with an art school sense of creativity. And, unlike the Velvets, you got a generous helping of infectious world beat rhythms.
Byrne may occasionally overreach. He might take a nip or two from the brew of self indulgence, but he never fails to bring the fun.
Tuesday night before a sellout crowd at the Pabst Theater, David Byrne demonstrated that, at 56, he is anything but a spent force. The energy, the imagination, the creativity, just the sheer exhilaration that marked Byrne’s best work is still there in ample supply.
The current tour is titled David Byrne on Tour: the Songs of David Byrne and Brian Eno. As such it draws on their classic collaborations within the Talking Heads and their subsequent work, including theirforthcoming album Everything That Happens Will Happen Today. That disc has gotten a soft release, showing up on the Web, and Byrne vowed, “It will eventually manifest itself in the physical world.”
Tuesday it manifested itself in such new tunes as “Strange Overtones,” “The River,” “One Fine Day” and “Home.” Collectively, they have all the romping joy and pop smarts that we expect from Eno and Byrne.
This being David Byrne, there is a generous swath of rock and roll circus and theater. For starters, David likes to make a visual impression. He and the entire band came out dressed completely in white — “We’ll be your musical doctors and nurses tonight,” Byrne explained. He then proceeded to administer two hours of fun that had the crowd packing the aisles, dancing and rising for repeated standing ovations.
Through most of the show there was a troupe of three very young dancers who essentially provided visual illustration for the music. And they weren’t consigned to some corner of the stage, gyrating in relative obscurity. They were center stage, leap frogging over Byrne and his back up singers, and sliding through his legs in mid song.
This being a David Byrne show, the choreography was wildly entertaining and original. For one song, Byrne and the dancers sat in office swivel chairs and slowly turned in a complete circle through a song. That may sound staid in print, but in performance it was very clever.
The new Eno-Byrne material was blended with memorable slices from the Byrne/Talking Heads résumé, including “Once in a Lifetime,” “Heaven,” “Burning Down the House” and “Take Me to the River.” “Take Me to the River” was originally an Al Green tune, a kind of R&B musical baptism, but Byrne takes that pulsing beat and pumps it into a rhythmic force of irresistible power. It is simply one of the most classic covers in the entire rock songbook.