By Chris Clark
David Byrne is my new hero. In fully comprehending the boldness of that statement, I realize that I'll have to diligently describe why it is I've decided to coin the former Talking Heads frontman as the crème de la crème of musicians in my world. Simply put, seeing him live was so unapologetically mind-blowing that all my years of hundreds of live performances seemed to pale in comparison to one wild Monday night at San Francisco's Louise M. Davies Symphony Hall.
To truly grasp the splendor of the evening, one must first understand the sheer magnificence of San Francisco's most majestic venue. Home to the San Francisco Symphony since 1980, there simply isn't a venue I've been in that matches both its intrinsic beauty and acoustic appeal. From the outside, the $27.5 million building's sheen stands out even in a city filled with glorious architecture. Once inside, the Hall's cathedral-like backdrop, complete with a massive, metallic organ pipe structure, coupled with the beautifully ornate ceiling and varying brown walls offers patrons a more than delectable concert-going experience.
Beauty aside, once the house lights faded, the packed room was there to see David Byrne, and nothing else mattered. Armed with his backing band of a drummer, bassist, keyboardist and percussionist, three singers and a three-person dance troupe, all dressed in white, milkman-type garb from head to toe, Byrne hit the stage hot and never cooled down. Sporting frosty gray-white hair and looking as good as he did during the Heads' glory days, Byrne began the evening in orator mode, explaining that he "recently completed a record with Brian Eno," to shouts of "Bring back the Heads" from an overly enthusiastic front row fan. Then, it all began and my new hero was born. "Strange Overtones," the first single from Byrne and Brian Eno's new album, Everything That Happens Will Happen Today, was the rather appropriate commencement of an evening filled with funk and fun, as he sang, "This groove is out of fashion/ These beats are 20 years old." Much like his work with the Talking Heads some thirty years ago, Byrne's new stuff relies heavily on a percussion-fueled core of driving beats and compelling start-stops fit to make a crowd roll into a frenzy. And just like back then, his stage persona and the band's beat-perfect renditions had the entire crowd standing for most of the night.
After a mellow, acoustic foray into another Everything That Happens number, "One Fine Day," (to which he proclaimed that one fine day may just come in the form of November 4th to an astounding roar from the crowd), out came the dancers, a welcome and rather seamless addition to the show. That may be one of the most direct comparisons of Byrne in 2008 compared to 1978: he puts on a multi-faceted show, not just a concert. Here, he was playing a cordless guitar while dancing backwards as his back-up singers crooned lying down on their backs while one of the female dancers dove through his legs. Who else does that?
His gesturing, smiling, dancing and playing, it's all so active and appealing. Luckily for all those in attendance, this was just the beginning. After a couple selections from his previous collaboration with Eno, My Life in the Bush of Ghosts, the evidence was more than perceptible that Byrne, in becoming my new hero, hadn't lost a step in thirty years. In all honesty, I think he's gained steps. His voice soars melodiously, at times giving me goose bumps. His dance moves are better than most twenty-somethings, while he looks (other than the white hair) like someone half his age. A majority 35-or-over crowd would surely agree with my sentiments, judging from the night's barrage of cheers, sweat-soaked shirts and incessant dancing that one woman next to me explained was "just like being at a Talking Heads show in 1982." Byrne, for almost two hours, flawlessly incorporated cowbell funk, vibrant vocal harmonies and crisp choreography into an explosive and colorful array of sight and sound. It was so precise that the crowd didn't have a chance to realize they'd been standing and dancing the entire time. In going back over my notes, I found one statement that really stuck out to me: I hadn't seen a gathering of music fans this noticeably enthusiastic and a venue this loud since Phish. The band's faces sparkled all night with joy and fervor, and the Hall and its packed aisles responded in kind.
After an hour or so, the night's unfeigned gems arrived, the songs people paid $80 to hear. First up was "Heaven," a heartfelt ode featuring soaring vocals by Byrne that would be the last slowdown before the real games began. Back came the funk with the explosive "Crosseyed and Painless," causing the capacity crowd to rise into a roar as Byrne and company ripped through one of the evening's most compelling numbers. Attendees from ages six to sixty rushed forward for a better view as "Still Waiting" (complete with coordinated arm gestures by the entire band), fueled by a torrent of percussion, had the Symphony Hall so filled with passion it's amazing no one there suffered a heart attack.
Undoubtedly my favorite moment over the course of the show arose in the form of "Once in a Lifetime." A longtime personal favorite, I was absolutely blown away by how impressive Byrne still is. While watching the sweaty mass of several thousand reliving their Talking Heads experiences, I couldn't help but think this was one of my most memorable concert experiences I'd ever had. You may ask yourself, was it the most memorable? That's too tough to tell.
Somewhere around seven standing ovations later, Byrne returned for an encore for the ages. The slow, methodical introduction of "Take Me to the River" segued into a goose bump inducing, start-stop section that found each turnaround a little fiercer while the crowd became a little more excited. Truly a class act, the night's glorious festivities concluded with a special guest appearance by San Francisco's own Extra Action Marching Band. The first thing I saw coming down the center aisles were two men dressed in nothing but black booty shorts and suspenders, waving flags as they strolled by. Then came the scantily clad ladies with silver pom-poms and ass cheeks hanging out, then somewhere around twenty others equipped with various drums and horns. Visceral and Burning Man evoking, they ran through a couple sweaty numbers before Byrne and his band returned for a proper conclusion to one of the most amazing nights of music I've ever witnessed: "Burning Down the House." Wow. I can't even begin to explain how remarkable it was to hear Byrne's voice soar over 30 or so drums and horns. There's no need to try. It was just that good.