By David Pehling
SAN FRANCISCO — David Byrne brought his current tour celebrating the music he has produced in collaboration with Brian Eno to Davies Symphony Hall in San Francisco for the second of two nights Tuesday, delivering a high-energy show that had the stage and the aisles filled with ecstatic dancers.
Anyone expecting the former Talking Heads principle and longtime solo artist to lean towards the ambient, cerebral side of things because of the tour’s focus on collaborations with self-proclaimed “non-musician” Brian Eno was in for a surprise. Supported by a sharp ensemble featuring three powerful back-up vocalists and a trio of kinetic dancers, Byrne treated fans to a joyous spectacle while playing some rarely heard gems from his deep back catalogue.
Reconnecting with Eno when working on the deluxe 2006 reissue of their seminal 1981 album My Life in the Bush of Ghosts rekindled the relationship between the two artists; this year they recordedEverything That Happens Will Happen Today, their first effort together in three decades. Byrne and his band took the unadorned stage clad all in white and quickly slipped into “Strange Overtones,” the first single from the new album. With its pulsing groove (propelled by Brazilian percussionist Marco Refosco, who did exemplary work all evening) and soaring chorus, the sunny tune set the celebratory vibe that poured from the stage for the next two hours.
It only took a few bars of the Talking Heads favorite “I Zimbra” to bring the audience rushing from their seats into the aisles to boogie. Onstage, Byrne and company were joined by a trio of dancers who provided an artful visual component to the show, varying between playful choreographed maneuvers with the back-up singers and Byrne himself when not gyrating with freestyle abandon.
The pattern of alternating mellower tracks (mostly the newer songs, though the band did play the achingly beautiful Talking Heads number “Heaven”) and faster, funkier old tunes sometimes sidetracked the forward momentum of the concert, but it was hard to argue with quality of the new material. Filled with Byrne’s wide-eyed, wonder-filled lyrics and melodic ear candy, standouts like “One Fine Day,” “I Feel My Stuff” and “Never Thought” proved how vital the songwriter’s partnership with Eno remains.
As a live performer, Byrne may not delve into the theatrics of his oversized suits and nervous energy of his Talking Heads heyday, but that didn’t make his stage presence any less powerful. Brimming with youthful energy, Byrne was in perpetual motion whether simply shaking his hips to the slinky, global groove the band was churning out or joining in the choreographed merriment with the dancers. And while one might expect his powerful voice and command of the stage to be undiminished, Byrne also acquitted himself admirably as the band’s sole electric guitarist. Though he mostly stuck to holding down unerringly chunky rhythms, when he had his solo moments his angular attack recalled frequent Eno collaborator Robert Fripp and onetime auxiliary Talking Heads axman Adrian Belew.
If there was any drawback to hearing Byrne unleash some long unheard jewels from his past, it came between songs when the audience had a chance to think about what other nuggets might be skipped. As good as “Help Me Somebody” sounded, it was a shame that no other tracks from ‘Bush of Ghosts’ got aired (“Regiment” or “The Jezebel Spirit” would have been brilliant with this group). Still, as the heat and humidity inside Davies continued to rise with percolating versions of “Crosseyed and Painless” and “Once in a Lifetime,” one would have been hard pressed to find anyone who wasn’t smiling and dancing with abandon in the room.
After a rocking rendition of “Great Curve,” the group briefly relinquished the stage to sprawling local punk-rock marching troupe the Extra Action Marching Band before returning for a scorching take on “Burning Down the House” that exploded with the power of Extra Action’s ample horn section. A fitting end to what was surely one of the hottest sets of music to fill the Symphony Hall in recent memory.
One Fine Day
Help Me Somebody
Houses in Motion
My Big Nurse
My Big Hands
Crosseyed and Painless
Take Me to the River
Life Is Long
Once in Lifetime
I Feel My Stuff
Life During Wartime
The Great Curve
Extra Action Marching Band guest appearance
Burning Down the House