By Ken Maiuri
It was the kind of show that made people dance on park benches afterwards, sent adults leaping happily across the late-night Main Street intersection in Northampton like ecstatic kids. David Byrne at the Calvin on Tuesday. A total experience.
You'd never have guessed what was coming from Byrne's measured, almost mumbled introduction, where he drily explained that he'd just made a new record ("Everything That Happens Will Happen Today") with his old friend, English musician and composer Brian Eno.
Byrne explained that he and his band would spend the night playing their new songs mixed with older ones on which he and Eno collaborated (in other words, most of the best songs and biggest hits from Byrne's old band, Talking Heads).
"That's the menu for the evening," he told the sold-out crowd.
The tip-off was that Byrne and his musicians -- a fourpiece band and three backing vocalists -- were all dressed in white. Their clean figures cut against the dark curtain as they began with the new song "Strange Overtones," built on an easygoing, rolling groove and dressed with the rich, gospel-like harmonies that keep resurfacing in Byrne's music through the decades.
And then the show exploded with color, motion and electricity. The band kicked up the churning rhythms for "I Zimbra" (a percussive Talking Heads favorite) and three dancers entered the stage, taking the microphones away from the backing singers and playfully repositioning them elsewhere. It seemed to be part choreographed, part improvised, and as bright hues saturated the curtain behind the band, every nonseated performer became part of the quirky movement. Vocalists Jenni Muldaur and Redray Frazier laid themselves down lazily on the stage while dancers held the microphone stands out over their mouths, and it was impossible to take in everything in the swirl of activity.
The dancers made appearances throughout the show. It didn't always gel perfectly -- dancer Steven Reker, for example, often had a gaping mouth and Broadway gleam in his eye that seemed out of place with everything else happening on stage; a solo dancer sometimes wandered into the spotlight near the end of a song in a seemingly haphazard fashion -- but their energy was high, and Byrne often became part of their routines, striking poses with his guitar, taking two practiced steps back to allow the dancers to fly past. (Reker even leapfrogged over him during "Once In a Lifetime.")
From the white clothes to the vibrant curtains of color to the unique choreography (one song used swiveling office chairs for props), Byrne's show was an excellently presented whole.
It all came together in the second encore's "Burning Down the House," as Byrne and all the dancers and singers flitted around the stage backwards like particles reacting in a science experiment.
Interestingly, although the band was great -- keyboard/sampling wizard Mark Degli Antoni was particularly impressive, coaxing bird noises, funky clavinet (an electronically amplified clavichord) chords, clangs, synth horns and Moog sweeps out of his equipment -- all the movement on stage made you almost forget the musicians were there.
Byrne was in fine voice, hitting emotional highs on his original tune "One Fine Day" (a song he said he first performed with Northampton's own [email protected] Chorus in New York City last year) and showing a surprising, unflagging passion for his old hits like "Once In a Lifetime" and "Life During Wartime."
The nearly two-hour, three encore, 20-song set was divided almost evenly between songs from the Talking Heads' heyday and new tunes. The new stuff really grows with repeated listening (and you can do so at will, since the entire album, Byrne and Eno's first together in 30 years, is available [to listen] for free at www.everythingthathappens.com), but the crowd was obviously overjoyed to hear Talking Heads hits played live.
Five songs in, the funky "Houses In Motion" got a standing ovation that halted the show as Byrne and his band exchanged wide-eyed smiles amid the deafening applause. "Crosseyed and Painless" was another room-enlivening song, as whole sections of the Calvin crowd got out of their seats to wiggle around to the skittering music.
The show ended with the title track of the new album, sort of a cool-down hymn after the climactic party of Talking Heads aerobic workouts, but the huge crowd remained joyously breathless as they shuffled out into the brisk December air.