By Jim Harrington
One of the greatest partnerships to ever occur in the recording studio was the pairing of vocalist-songwriter David Byrne and producer Brian Eno.
The dynamic duo, a meeting of eccentric rock masterminds, would deliver three consecutive masterpieces for Byrne's band, the Talking Heads: 1978's "More Songs About Buildings and Food," 1979's "Fear of Music" and 1980's "Remain in Light."
Byrne and Eno also put out their own record in 1981, "My Life in the Bush of Ghosts," which isn't as well known to the general public as those Talking Heads classics. Yet, time has served to validate the significance of that album, as its groundbreaking usage of sampled (or what was then called "found") vocals has played a huge role in shaping modern electronic music.
The rock legends recently reunited to cook up a second duo offering, "Everything That Happens Will Happen Today," and the album has been receiving positive reviews since its mid-August release date.
Apparently, all of that has Byrne feeling mighty sentimental about his time with Eno. Thus, he's decided to showcase their combined legacy during his current tour, which touched down Monday for a two-night stand at Davies Symphony Hall in San Francisco.
On opening night, the artist's "Songs of David Byrne and Brian Eno" turned out to be a mostly enjoyable night for both those fans that stopped listening to Byrne after his run with the Talking Heads ended in 1991 — which is a sizable majority — and the die-hards that have kept up to date with Byrne's often curious, always ambitious solo career.
Fronting an eight-member band, Byrne kicked off the nearly two-hour concert with a percussion-heavy take on the new album's first single, the likeable "Strange Overtones." From there, the 56-year-old vocalist, who was in fine voice throughout the evening, played hopscotch through his Eno collaborations, touching on each of the five applicable albums.
Byrne stuck mainly to the better-known numbers from the three Talking Heads records, performing such hits as "Take Me to the River" (from "More Songs"), "Life During Wartime" (from "Fear of Music") and "Once in a Lifetime" (from "Remain in Light"). It was disappointing that the singer didn't delve deeper into those platters to find other tunes that truly mattered, like "Cities," "Thank You for Sending Me an Angel" and "Born Under Punches (The Heat Goes On)."
In their place were too many new songs that simply don't rank among the best Byrne-Eno numbers. These numbers, including "The River," "My Big Nurse" and "Never Thought," were stockpiled during the middle of the show and caused a noticeable lull in excitement. (The excitement would return toward the end, though, and the house was truly rockin' during the double shot of "Once in a Lifetime" and "Life During Wartime.")
Byrne has always put a big emphasis on the visual element, which is why the Talking Heads' videos were so great, and this concert was a treat for the eyes. The band members were dressed from head-to-toe in white, looking like they were ready to audition for the forthcoming "Milk Men Gone Wild" video. There were also three dancers, performing choreographed bits and, in general, adding quite a bit to the presentation.
The concert ended in a fashion that has grown familiar to Bay Area fans as Byrne once again invited San Francisco's colorful Extra Action Marching Band to the stage for the encore. The sight of 40-plus musicians gyrating to "Burning Down the House" never gets old, which is something that can also be said about the best of the Byrne-Eno songbook.