By Tim Metcalfe
It is rare these days that genuine rock royalty visits Oxford – unless you count running in to Thom Yorke in Waitrose, of course. So David Byrne’s gig at the New Theatre was always going to be a special occasion. And it was. This slickly choreographed show was a celebration of Byrne’s work with music’s high priest of cool, Brian Eno, which include three Talking Heads albums and, after a 20-year hiatus in the partnership, Everything That Happens Will Happen Today.
Truthfully, the wildly enthusiastic audience would have been happy if Byrne had turned up and performed his greatest hits – but he provided a genuinely theatrical performance. Dressed top to toe in white, he looked for all the world like an old (very fit and elegant) cricketer returning to the crease. He flipped through his songbook, from less familiar new tracks to Talking Heads’ classics, such as Heaven, and genuine showstoppers like the mesmeric Houses in Motion and an uplifting version of Take Me To The River.
But as you’d expect from Mr Byrne, this show is a visual as well as an aural treat. His athletic dancers – Lily Baldwin, Natalie Kuhn and Steven Reker – are not just there for decoration, they form part of the show, cartwheeling and twirling around the stage, switching places with the backing singers, playing instruments, and on occasion, vaulting over Byrne as he continued to play and sing. The action rarely slowed – only briefly ceasing when Byrne remonstrated mid-song with New Theatre staff telling people to stop dancing. “You dance if you want to,” said the silver-haired master of the revels. And the audience were quickly on their feet – from stalls to balcony. I can’t recall seeing this happen in more than 20 years of reviewing. Byrne was truly burning down the house.
The band were as slick as the dance troupe, the rhythm section of Paul Frazier (bass), Mauro Refosco (percussion) and Graham Hawthorne (drums) keeping a powerful groove going that would provide a significant boost to the national grid, while keyboardist Mark Degli Antoni weaved complex melodies into the mix. The show was over all too soon, two hours and three encores gone in an instant, or so it seemed. If you get a chance to see him on this tour grab it with both hands. At 56, David Byrne is still making a whole lot of sense.