By T. Ballard Lesemann
It was billed as An Evening with David Byrne: Songs of David Byrne and Brian Eno, but the eclectic former Talking Heads frontman led a loudly appreciative audience at the North Charleston Performing Arts Center on a groove-heavy musical trip that journeyed beyond his songwriting collaborations with Eno. Confident, wide-eyed, and clad all in whte, Byrne's nearly two-hour set (including three encores) jumped from his latest recordings to his earliest work on which Eno worked as a studio producer.
The entire band walked onto the minimally-decorated stage on Tuesday evening wearing white outfits. The three backing singers and four core musicians — killer left-handed bassist Paul Frazier, drummer Graham Hawthorne, keyboardist Mark De Gli Antoni, and percussionist Mauro Refosco — assembled behind Byrne, who spent most of his time tapping his feet, strumming an acoustic guitar, and picking a Fender Strat at the mic stand at the stagefront. After months of touring, he sounded a bit raspy during his characteristically dry and polite introduction. However, his wide-ranged singing voice soared during the grand opening number "Strange Overtones," from the new Byrne/Eno studio album titled Everything that Happens Will Happen Today.
The band picked up the pace with a lengthy rendition of "I Zimbra" the Afro-beat lead-off track from the 1979 Talking Heads album Fear of Music. A trio of young modern dancers — Steven Reker, Lily Baldwin, and Natalie Kuhn — suddenly ran on stage with a burst of Broadway energy, singing along with the lyrics and zig-zagging between Byrne, backing singers, and the band. Their wild gestures and smiles initially seemed over the top and felt almost distracting.
Things mellowed a bit on "Help Me Somebody" (from the previous Byrne/Eno album, 1981's My Life in the Bush of Ghosts), but bounced back with a mesmerizing version of the Talking Heads tune "Houses in Motion," originally from 1980's Remain in Light. The repetition in the groove allowed for some deeply funky moments, and Byrne sounded almost godly with harmonies from his singers during the "I'm walkin' a line!" chorus.
The band's instrumentation and complex arrangements resembled the larger "touring ensemble" versions of the Heads back in their heyday — with cats like keyboardist Bernie Worrell, guitarist Adrian Belew, and numerous drummers and percussionists joining the cacophony. An intense and jumpy rendition of "Crosseyed and Painless" (from Remain in Light) also emphasized the dense texture of the music and the festive, non-stop visual effect of the dancers.
A brassy "Take Me to the River" (the Al Green standard re-recorded by Talking Heads on More Songs about Buildings and Food) was cool stuff, especially for old-school Talking Heads fans and relatively young newcomers. Some of the most memorable highlights included a bold double-shot of "Once In a Lifetime" and "Life During Wartime" — both of which earned extremely loud and lengthy applause.
At 56, Byrne's vocal abilities haven't diminished at all. He sounded strong and vigorous. He obviously hasn't lost a step, herking, jerking, walking backwards, and wiggling around with his youthful ensemble. Altogether, Byrne and his crew delivered a spirited and unique audio/visual experience.