By Jeremy D. Goodwin
NORTHAMPTON — It's rooted in rock-solid rhythms, but feels like it's spinning off the axis. The great legerdemain of certain polyrhythmic music from Africa and the Caribbean is its ability to create a propulsive sense of forward motion, while rhythmically and harmonically standing in place. Is it linear or circular? At the end of the vamp you're still dancing in the same place you started, but it feels like an epic journey was accomplished in the meantime.
So it was at David Byrne's thrilling show this week at the Calvin Theatre. A good chunk of his work with producer Brian Eno — the source material on this current tour — achieves a sound that is awash with motion, propelled by a chorus of percussion and Byrne's paranoid, highwire-walking vocals. (Though filtered, of course, through New Wave, art house concerns.)
Byrne's whole ensemble was dressed in white, frequently dancing about the stage, and during Afrobeat-influenced showstoppers like "Crosseyed and Painless" and "The Great Curve" the blizzard of flailing arms and wailing rhythms created a joyous, visual and auditory blur.
Byrne is touring with a group made up of a quintet plus three backing singers and three modern dancers. But the lines between all categories were constantly blurred, with singers donning acoustic guitars, dancers playing percussion, and just about everybody joining at times in the often quirky, always fluid dance steps.
The material on this tour comes mostly from the three Eno-produced Talking Heads albums and the new collaboration between Byrne and Eno released just last week, "Everything That Happens Will Happen Today." (Curiously, Byrne and Eno's 1982 album "My Life in the Bush of Ghosts" was almost wholly bypassed.) Byrne's description of the new stuff as "gospel-folk-electronic" held up for the most part, though its latent funkiness was manifested by the dynamic live arrangements and Mauro Refosco's impressive percussion work.
The dancing, choreographed by Noémie Lafrance, Annie-B Parson and the duo robbinschilds, was an indispensable part of the show. Lily Baldwin, Natalie Kuhn and Steven Reker pulled several Everyman-style moves, sometimes creating a utilitarian sense that the fans dancing at their seats could jump up onstage and be able to keep up if they wanted to.
But these moments quickly gave way to exhibitions of great technical chops, such as Baldwin's brief but stunning solo at the end of "I Feel My Stuff." Later, as Byrne declared (in "The Great Curve") "the world moves on a woman's hips," Baldwin made a good case for the theory with her sensually charged accents.
One suspects Byrne added the dancers for the obvious fun he has interacting with them, whether being spun 360 degrees immediately before launching into a guitar solo in "Poor Boy" or twirling together in swivel chairs at the foot of the stage during the mellow bop of "Life is Long." The most showy move came right as he struck the crunchy chords leading to the bridge of "Once in a Lifetime," with Reker dashing across stage and vaulting over Byrne's shoulders.
A big highlight came with "Poor Boy," in what Byrne said was the live debut of this new tune. The song is a bit more subdued on record, but this absolutely ferocious romp revealed it to be on a par with polyrhythmic classics from the "Remain in Light" album, like "Crosseyed and Painless" and "Houses in Motion."
Byrne and company offered other flavors as well, like the sublime, wistful ache of "Heaven" and the unadulterated pop of "Burning Down the House," sweetened by Mark Degli Antoni's vintage synthesizer sounds. The Caucasian digital Gospel of "Everything That Happens" made for a spookily soulful finale, with the keyboards, Graham Hawthorne's drums and Paul Frazier's bass the only instrumental backing beneath a chorus of oddly inspiring voices.
As he did during "I Feel My Stuff," Byrne put aside his guitar playing on this last song to join his six dancers and singers in a choreographed set piece. It was not the first time on this night that Byrne seemed to be leading an art-rock tent revival. Like much of his greatest work, this restless artist seemed to be always in motion.