David Byrne, Southampton Guildhall, UK
By David Honigmann
Contrary to usual practice, David Byrne encouraged audience members to take photographs and record his concert on their mobile phones. “Can we dance?” shouted one of the crowd, provoking an unexpectedly pedantic response. “Can you dance?” he mused back. “May you dance?”
In the end, everyone danced. Byrne, formerly of New Wave band Talking Heads, which folded in 1991, is in the unenviable position of sitting on a back catalogue known far better than his newer work. The show was designed to fold songs from last year’s Everything That Happens Will Happen Today, a new record with Brian Eno, into Byrne and Eno’s older collaborations.
“Strange Overtones” set out the thesis. “These songs are out of fashion,” he sang. “This groove is 20 years old,” and the song had all the hallmarks of Eno-produced Talking Heads: wobbly keyboard glissandi, percussion overload, choral singing, nagging rhythm guitar. “I Zimbra”, which followed, sounded like a continuation: polyrhythmic chatter with Byrne barking the nonsense lyrics of Dadaist Hugo Ball over the top. Here the band was joined by three dancers, mimicking and mocking the backing singers.
Visually, the show was simple: all nine musicians and three dancers were clad in white, half-angel, half-astronaut, with the backdrop flaring into colour from time to time. The dancers, joined by the trio of backing singers when they were otherwise unemployed, were a hyperactive presence. There was go-go dancing, but also slow Kabuki-style posing on “I Feel My Stuff”. At one point, the cast slowly revolved in office chairs; at the end, Steven Reker, one of the dancers, kicked his chair into motion and glided across the stage in a frozen, vehicular arabesque.
The older songs, notably “Once In A Lifetime”, “Take Me To The River”, with swelling gospel organ, and a rogue Eno-free “Road To Nowhere”, were understandably cheered loudest, but the newer ones, arranged for this band, acquired familiarity by proximity.
The second encore was “Burning Down the House”, with the whole band clad in tutus. At the end, the musicians blew from side to side of the stage, as if the hall were rolling in a gale; Reker went over the side and swam a front crawl over the audience, buoyed by willing hands.
No way to top that, but the band was cheered back for the final time to sing “Everything That Happens”: quiet, sincere, communal.