By Chris Gray
David Byrne knows about living in the moment. The white-haired former Talking Heads frontman and unofficial U.S. ambassador for Third World pop, whose hair was as white as his (and his band's) wardrobe, was a genial host at Jones Hall Monday night. "It's nice to be in Mr. Jesse Jones' hall," he said shortly after walking onstage. "I was reading up about Jesse Jones, but I have some more reading to do."
After making that stale joke about how New Yorkers pronounce "Houston" "How-ston" - "You're not in New York," someone was only too happy to point out - Byrne was even happy to allow the audience to take its own photographs. "We have big magnets installed in the lobby," he said. "We only ask that you delete the pictures where we don't look so good."
Like much of the set - 75 minutes plus three encores for a total running time of just under two hours - Byrne's opener, "Strange Overtones," came from last year's Brian Eno collaboration Everything That Happens Will Happen Today. Incorporating bits of Afro-beat, post-punk funk and steel-drum calypso, it was rootless roots music that effectively captured the lyrics' (and the evening's) aura of blissful - and often fatalistic - disorientation.
"I Zimbra," one of Talking Heads' first (and most durable) experiments with what came to be known as "world music" soon after 1979's Fear of Music, followed, bringing out six white-clad dancers to interpret its brittle, glass-like melody - when there was one - and chunky polyglot groove. Everything's "One Fine Day," though, with lush keyboards and equally rich multi-part harmonies, was the first song that could properly be called truly Enoesque.
"Help Me Somebody" - from Byrne and Eno's first collaboration, 1981's My Life In the Bush of Ghosts ("wasn't a big seller," Byrne noted), was even more on-message, using chirping birds, a heavy groove, bright chords and up-and-at-'em lyrics to make the title both a gospel plea and funk demand. "Houses in Motion" was more robotic; despite its theme of displacement, both Byrne and the dancers - who had to be having a better time than at last year's Austin City Limits Music Festival - moved around pretty well.
The first real left turn was Everything's "My Big Nurse," three sunny acoustic guitars and a honky-tonk piano covering up hints of hellfire and Big Brother amid the reverie of a lazy afternoon. "Heaven" reversed the polarity, its gorgeous country-folk melody emphasizing the idyllic stasis of the lyrics, where the hereafter is a bar where nothing ever happens and a kiss keeps repeating. (God, wouldn't that be nice.)
Everything's pastoral "Life is Long" kept it going with ecumenical - but not quite secular - gospel: "I'm lost but I'm not afraid... Chains and bars, but I'm still free." Still, it was the Talking Heads hits that followed soon after that proved Byrne's notion of hell (or heaven) is what you make it has never been very far away.
"Once in a Lifetime," played as Phillip Glass gone pop, with its beautiful houses, unrecognizable spouses and mysterious highways says where you are at any given moment is both completely beyond your control and entirely up to you, so enjoy where you're at. (Same as it ever was.) "Life During Wartime" - which drew a rapturous cheer when Byrne got to the line about Houston - may say "This ain't no party, this ain't no disco, this ain't no fooling around... no time for dancing, for lovey-dovey," but Byrne was obviously lying. Monday night, for those two hours, that was all there was.
"Take Me to the River" - the first of four encores, including a kinetic "Burning Down the House" (with Byrne and most of the male band members clad in matching tutus) and lullaby-like finale "Everything That Happens," but not "Psycho Killer" (qu'est que cest?) - even took that idea into the afterlife. Literally. Although it was played perfectly as a nice, long, full, funky hymn (with Byrne's backing vocal trio pouring out the soul), it couldn't quite disguise the fact that nowhere in the song does either Byrne or its author, the Rev. Al Green, mention anything about coming back up.