By Kelvin Tamore
For the past 30-odd years, David Byrne's brand of eclectic art-rock has mesmerised audiences with its unique blend of lofty, idealistic sonic landscapes, fused with African and Brazilian rhythms and sensibilities. It is a strange but enticing blend of New York artistic astuteness.
The gamut of his musicality spans the ground-breaking art-rock of his now-defunct band Talking Heads to musical collaborations with renowned multi-media artist Robert Wilson and dancer-choreographer Twyla Tharp.
So, it is no surprise that he wowed an elated, 1,400-strong audience on Wednesday night at the Suntec Convention Centre with a stunning two-hour, 21-song performance that reminded his ever-faithful fans why he is probably one of the most creative musicians of his generation.
Dressed in white, accompanied by a four-member band with six dancers [the tour has three dancers and three backup singers who occasionally dance—ed.] also in white, his show was a mix of dance, mime and performance art with a loud funk beat to boot.
First, there were the now infamous Talking Heads songs. The band, adept at switching from gumboots-style African funk to experimental psychedelic funkwave, were perfect accomplices in the stellar interpretations of classic Talking Heads songs such as the chart-topping "Burning Down The House" and the incredibly heart-thumping "Life During Wartime".
In these performances, steady, hypnotic rock grooves set the intense pace for the virile intensity of Byrne's lyrics. His voice, a cracking but intense falsetto-like swirl, has improved through the years and it was clearly evident in these performances. He refused to do a version of his most classic Talking Heads song, "Psycho Killer", despite pleas from the mostly Caucasian crowd. No, sir. Tonight, he was sticking to Art.
Then there were choices from the experimental rock albums: Remain In Light and My Life In The Bush Of Ghosts (his collaboration with U2 producer Brian Eno) were given a Caribbean, African backbeat, syncopated by Byrne's deft rhythm guitar shuffles on his Fender Stratocaster. They were different from the recorded versions in that they were more band performances/versions than pieces of aesthetic statements in High Art Rock.
The seven dancers tried to complement Byrne's theatrics with Twyla Tharp or Martha Graham manoeuvres but with very mixed results.
Byrne is a confident, mesmerising presence on stage, and the musical virtuosity of the band leaves little to doubt. The performances were very strong and enjoyable, but energy preceded over original artistry.
This was evident in his delivery of songs from "Everything That Happens Will Happen Today", his new collaboration with Eno. The media defined it as 'electronic gospel', but without Eno present, the electronic element was missing. The album was a lovingly arranged blend of folk, blues, gospel and African rhythms with Eno's divine off-kilter minimalist electronic musings, the perfect foil to Byrne's incredible John Ashbery-like poeticisms and urgent vocals.
The live performances were still compelling - the tender "My Big Nurse", the spiritual "One Fine Day" and the avant garde-sounding "I Feel My Stuff". But without Eno's delicately refined sonic sensibilities, they were simply fine performances, not genuinely innovative gems of machine-meets-soul.
The audience loved it nonetheless and Byrne returned for three encores, starting with Talking Heads' "Air", leading to the magisterial Al Green classic "Take Me To The River" and ending appropriately with the title track from the new album.
It was a perfect song to close as it was one that needed Eno's performance the least: gospel harmonies blended with hints of Brian Wilson's Pet Sounds approach to sound - earthy, echoey, yet eccentrically creative.