By Larry Ryan
During one of many encores for this stunning show, David Byrne, his band, backing singers and three dancers emerge on stage wearing tutus. It's not clear why, but as they as they twirl around the stage while singing "Burning Down the House", the whole thing takes on its own perfect playful logic.
At the end of the song Byrne lifts his tutu, mock-flashing the crowd. Bass player Paul Frazier crumples in laughter and Byrne beams a smile. In Talking Heads' time, Byrne resembled a mad professor with a prickly air; now, he looks like a genial old professor, with white hair and white clothes, his happy band of acolytes all also dressed in variations on the white theme.
"It's warm up here," Byrne says at one moment, "in my skin, it's warm." It sounds as though he is composing an archetypal Byrne/Talking Heads lyric on the spot. He might be warm, but he seems very confident and comfortable on stage.
Not that he is merely in his comfort zone. In an interview in 2007, Byrne discussed his voracious appetite for new and interesting music, and how, even in his fifties, he could still be seen regularly traversing the New York to check out undergrounds band few others had heard of. Byrne wondered: "Sometimes I go out to these shows and I go, 'Where are my peers?', you know? Where are the musicians from my generation, or the generation after mine? Don't they go out to hear music?"
It's this attitude that makes David Byrne an endlessly fascinating individual. While many musicians of his vintage are content with comeback tours and slavishly knocking out the hits, Byrne has continually gone further, with his music, with soundtracks, collaborations, art installations, design, his website – the list goes on.
One peer who has kept pace with him is Brian Eno. Last year, the duo paired up for their first album together since My Life in the Bush of Ghosts in 1981. While Everything that Happens will Happen Today doesn't scale the pioneering heights of the earlier record, it is a fine dash of art pop. The show comprises songs from these two albums along with music from Eno's time as Talking Heads' producer.
As the show starts, Byrne discusses the photographers massed in front of him at the foot the stage: "I paid them to be here, to make me look good." A joke, one presumes, though virtually every other moment is perfectly planned. The three dancers are choreographed in motion with the musicians. As Byrne steps away from his mic, a dancer slides along the ground in his wake. Byrne falls back and is caught by the dancers, creating a distancing effect for his vocal. At another moment, a dancer leaps over Byrne's head as he performs a guitar solo. It could seem corny or pretentious, but manages to avoid both pitfalls.
Of course, all this could have been mere set dressing if the music didn't sound great, which it does. The Talking Heads material is still the key, but the new songs (as well as the My Life in the Bush of Ghosts work) sound good and all sit happily together. Furthermore, the timbre of Byrne's voice has improved with age.
The first half of the show ticks along nicely, but when they play the propulsive "Crosseyed and Painless" things go up a notch. At first, there are just a handful of audience members dancing in front of the stage, as if Byrne had planned it so, although none are choreographed and all look like they last cut a rug in 1982. By the song's conclusion, however, all in the seated venue are on their feet.
Next comes "Once in a Lifetime", and it remains as fresh as newly whitewashed walls. Same as it ever was.
A concert given by a rock legend at some vast arena is not hard to come by these days, but this is one of those gigs that touches greatness. The band follows with a tight take on "Life During Wartime". The crowd stays standing, dancing and braying in joy. It may not have been the Mudd Club or CBGB, but for a while on Easter Sunday, the wide wooden expanse of the Royal Festival Hall certainly felt like it was.