David Byrne’s Revival, Rapturously Merging ‘81 & ‘08 in Concert

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By Spencer Owen, mog, 6 October 2008 [Link]

Shouted an ignoramus at Davies Hall, before David Byrne even got a chance to play a single song: "Bring back the Heads!" It's a complicated issue, of course, because so much of the joy that was about to be gleaned from the set can be traced back to that old jittery warhorse Talking Heads. The band dressed all in white; including three dancers, there were eleven people on stage. With the grey-haired Byrne in command — his energy less wiry than in his youth, more focused, but no less captivating — much of the experience was essentially a convincing afterimage of Stop Making Sense, the quintessential Talking Heads concert film. So convincing, in fact, that such an ignoramus goes from being wrong to being proven right, only to be proven wrong again.

Because Brian Eno wrote the music for Byrne's new record, Everything That Happens Will Happen Today, the idea was that it would be a decent opportunity to revive some of the older works that featured Eno's assistance alongside the latest material. It was an intriguing idea. I recall reading Byrne's blog when he was touring for his previous record, Grown Backwards; he seemed, at a time or two, a bit dismayed that the songs that really got people on their feet and into it were Talking Heads songs. I saw two shows on that tour and he wasn't wrong (though I personally remember, for instance, his performance of "The Great Intoxication" from Look Into the Eyeball just as fondly as anything else from those nights). Perhaps an emphasis on Eno's undeniable influence made that older material seem more welcoming to him; the closest he got, in fact, to acknowledging his former bandmates was to say that "lots of other people" were involved in those prior collaborations.

It was also, by the way and of course, a grand idea. In 2004/5, he played the Talking Heads tracks, among others, "Once in a Lifetime," "Heaven," "Life During Wartime," and, most surprisingly, "I Zimbra," the Fear of Music opener that resembles most closely, over anything else in their '70s catalogue, the eerie, Afrobeat-instilled funk of their 1980 LP Remain in Light. He performed all of these in San Francisco on Monday, and then some. All of the new "wows" to be had from Talking Heads' past came fromRemain in Light; with only "I Zimbra" and two new ones out of the way, the band slipped into the sway of "Houses in Motion," and later came "Crosseyed & Painless" and "The Great Curve," two of the more invigorating songs conceived in the past three decades of the Western world. The chants and rhythms came alive and the place was floored. Young and old danced in the aisles; attempts to clear them by Symphony Hall staff were futile. Byrne and his formidable band received a three-minute ovation halfway through the concert.

There was much to appreciate about the show, that being said, other than those moments that inspired such audience frenzy. My personal favorite selection from the setlist was an even rarer treat, something that he's actually never done: "Help Me Somebody," from the original Eno/Byrne effort, 1981's My Life in the Bush of Ghosts. All the vocals on that record were from "found" sources; "now they're called samples," Byrne explained in a tone that made it sound like a joke even before adding a barely-actual joke about confusing them with the free samples at the supermarket (the man's humor is dry, if you haven't noticed). For the live rendition of "Help Me Somebody," Byrne took on the voice of the "found" preacher himself, yelping and screaming with theatrical religiosity. The only other non-Heads track the band played that night was almost equally rare and also from 1981, a deep cut from his score to Twyla Tharp's dance piece The Catherine Wheel called "My Big Hands (Fall Through the Cracks)." As far as general comments go, Byrne's voice was perfect and he didn't stop moving; the dancers and their choreography were a delight, but ultimately served more to highlight Byrne's constant, compelling, natural-yet-staged motions than anything else.

For better or worse, the time period of 1982-2007 did not rear its variably-less-edgy-and/or-influential head during the set — except when San Francisco's Extra Action Marching Band burst in for the final encore to assist on "Burning Down the House," serving as a welcome local presence and an exciting "show's over" postscript. As for this year, the songs chosen to represent Everything That Happens Will Happen Today sounded better than they do on the album. They were never worse than mildly enjoyable (namely "Never Thought," from the soon-to-be-released deluxe edition of the album) and mostly quite stirring, particularly "The River" and the single "Strange Overtones," which opened the concert.

But the stronger statement was made by summoning the ghostly energy of the earliest '80s. It wouldn't necessarily be difficult to make a political or sociological statement out of these circumstances, especially since these are qualities of the life that have always consumed the minds of David Byrne and Brian Eno. I'm more concerned with how affirming of the present it all is. With a set of both old and new music containing nary a moment of boredom, he silences cries for one kind of reunion and invites the audience to join him for another, and to say the least, everyone leaves pretty convinced it went well. To say more, David Byrne is a relevant artist who can put together a band and sweep an audience with joy in 2008 seemingly just as well as he could in 1981.

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