By David Menconi
After spending the afternoon frequenting downtown Raleigh's hipper eateries, David Byrne appeared onstage at Meymandi Hall Monday night looking like someone who was going to approach your table, pull out a notepad and take your dinner order. Except he had a guitar, not a notepad; and a really excellent band. And it was goooood. Here's the review that will run in Wednesday's paper.
RALEIGH — David Byrne has always given off the vibe of a nervous waiter. So it made perfect sense when he appeared onstage at Meymandi Hall Monday night, dressed immaculately in white, to fill the audience in on the program's mix of new and old songs to be played.
"No substitutes, it's not an a la carte menu," he said. "There is a set menu. There will be dessert. And I'll be your waiter."
At which point Byrne and his 10-piece backup ensemble commenced to cook, serving up an extraordinary performance. At about 1:45, it could have been longer. But I didn't hear anybody complaining afterward.
Thirty years ago, you probably wouldn't have pegged Byrne as someone who was going to age gracefully. As leader of Talking Heads, he exuded painful, awkward self-consciousness — which was a key component of their aesthetic, but it didn't seem like something that would wear well. And yet the confidence of age and experience suits Byrne perfectly.
Twenty years into his solo career, Byrne has been a solo act longer than Talking Heads were a band. He remains a peerless showman, in his own quirky way, shaking a leg and showing off impressive moves while never missing a note on his guitar. A sit-down venue like Meymandi was less than ideal for dance music, but it didn't matter. Everybody was still up and dancing by the end.
This tour is billed as "Songs of David Byrne and Brian Eno," in tribute to Byrne's longtime collaborator. The 20-song set included a big chunk of the duo's new album, "Everything That Happens Will Happen Today," plus various other Eno-partnered songs from over the years. It began on a self-mocking note with "Strange Overtones," from the new album: "This groove is out of fashion/These beats are 20 years old."
Really, though, the nearly sold-out crowd wanted to hear a lot more of those old grooves and beats. Byrne didn't make them wait long and got right to the back catalog with the second song, "I Zimbra," from Talking Heads' 1979 album "Fear of Music."
If Monday's show had a flaw, it was that the new album's songs are pretty subdued, which brought the energy level down. Still, the new songs fit into Byrne's catalog perfectly. The new album's "My Big Nurse" and the late-'70s vintage "Heaven" both could have passed for country twang, beautiful and non-ironic (in tone if not lyrics).
As always with a Byrne performance, shadows and light played a big part in the ambience. The set was low-tech enough for swivel chairs to serve as props for one song ("Life Is Long"), but other parts of the show had fractured light and shadows through which the white-clad players passed like wraiths.
New songs aside, it was still Byrne's battle-tested oldies that brought down the house. The atmosphere was positively joyous on "Take Me to the River," "Life During Wartime," "Once in a Lifetime" and, of course, "Burning Down the House" — with the house lights up and everyone onstage (Byrne included) wearing tutus over their white suits.
Tip that waiter, now.