By Larry Rodgers
Leave it to Talking Heads alumnus David Byrne to start his concert in Phoenix on Tuesday by remarking about the clouds painted on the ceiling of Phoenix's historic Orpheum Theatre.
"Did you see the clouds moving across the ceiling?" Byrne asked as he took the stage, dressed all in white. (Changes in lighting make the clouds appear to move.)
Byrne and his five-piece band (also clad in white) delivered a solid sampling of solo and Talking Heads material that he has created over the years with the help of electronica wizard Brian Eno.
But Byrne also provided visual stimulation, not through the usual video screens (there were none), but through three talented dancers (yep, in white) who brought to life many of the songs in his 100-minute set.
Byrne opened with a crisp, funky version of Strange Overtones, from his new album with Eno, Everything That Happens Will Happen Today.
The dancers then appeared during I Zimbra, from Talking Heads' 1979 album Fear of Music. They engaged the singers, smiling at them and touching them, and Byrne also moved around the stage as he played guitar.
At 56, the Scottish-born Byrne remains a striking stage presence, with his prominent, dark eyebrows and shock of white hair.
His voice still can soar, as he demonstrated on One Fine Day, from his latest album with Eno (who was not in the touring band). Byrne played an acoustic guitar as his two percussionists banged a quasi-African rhythm and three backup singers provided rich harmonies.
There were more world music overtones in Help Me Somebody, from another project with Eno, 1981'sMy Life In the Bush of Ghosts. Byrne replaced the original track's "found vocals" (samples) with his own voice in the driving, funky song.
The star, his band and the dancers drew the first of a string of standing ovations from the crowd with an amazing version of Houses In Motion, from Talking Heads' Remain In Light (1980). The dancers, two women and a man, were back, joined in their moves by the singers. At one point, Byrne fell backward, holding his guitar, caught by the dancers.
The whole troupe was smiling throughout the performance, clearly enjoying themselves. That attitude infected the audience, which stood and danced for the last third of the show.
Another crowd-pleaser was the slow rocker Heaven, from Fear of Music. Byrne gazed skyward (as he did for much of the set) and wistfully sang, "Heaven is a place where nothing ever happens."
Other highlights included the smooth groove of Never Thought, a bonus track on the new Byrne-Eno album, featuring a ringing guitar solo by the star. His guitar work also stood out on Crosseyed & Painless, from Remain In Light.
Byrne pushed things later in the set, at one point taking to a wheeled office chair along with two of his dancers and swiveling around the stage as he sang and played acoustic guitar. The dancers got mechanical and robot-like during the Talking Heads fan favorite Once In a Lifetime, performed with heavy percussion.
Another big radio staple, Life During Wartime, featured funky synthesizer, and an encore of Take Me to the River, spotlighted the singers.
Byrne acknowledged the enthusiasm of the audience by playing one more encore song than he has at most venues on this tour.
Home, from his CD with Eno, provided a warm, low-key ending to the evening.
One female fan yelled, "Brilliant!" during a break earlier in the set.