By Ken Eisner
His white hair now matches his stage attire in Stop Making Sense, and his music, both as chief Talking Head and solo artist, has endured well. But what’s most striking about David Byrne is the way he’s remained current by ignoring trends and staking out his own personal territory.
The last Heads album, Naked, was released two decades ago. Since then, the art-wave pioneer has dabbled in ballet, sung opera, and gone heavily into salsa and Brazilian music. The through-line is movement, and the mid-sized band he brought to the Queen E. was peripatetic in the best possible ways.
Alternating between two Strats, a Telecaster, and an acoustic guitar, the trim 56-year-old was backed by four nimble musicians, three singers, and trio of dancers. All were dressed in ceremonial white, and most sang and strapped on six-strings at various times, blurring their roles to the packed audience’s obvious delight.
The highly choreographed visuals recalled Byrne’s work on The Catherine Wheel with Twyla Tharp, which he happily acknowledged, along with a backwards nod to “surviving Reagan and Bush”. The bandleader cannily used his dancers—Steven Reker, Natalie Kuhn, and Lily Baldwin—to help sell unfamiliar songs from his recent record with Brian Eno, Everything That Happens Will Happen Today. While their steps were far from the stylized Kabuki fans remember from Stop Making Sense, the best single-act concert movie ever made, that didn’t make them any less exuberant.
Although there were trademark hand gestures and angular body movements from Byrne’s big-suit era—“Life During Wartime” and “Once In a Lifetime” were among the oldies performed here—everything was marked by a spirit of loose improvisation, and by a huge smile on the singer’s face. It’s safe to say that Byrne has relaxed, which does not mean that he has mellowed. “Crosseyed and Painless” had him wrenching hyper cascades of squealing feedback out of his black Stratocaster.
“Take Me to The River” opened a series of three encores that rounded out the two-hour show, during which Byrne looked happy to knock out jagged funk lines in a Nile Rodgers vein. A similar springiness defined the Africa-rooted “I Zimbra”, one of Byrne’s oldest collaborations with Eno, and there was also the newly vocalized version of “Help Me Somebody", a cut from their My Life in the Bush of Ghosts experiment, sans the audio clips. “These days,” Byrne noted, “there’s a whole industry in sample clearance. But we didn’t think about any of that back then.”
The singer’s current Eno-driven material, such as the country-tinged “One Fine Day” and anthemic “Life is Long” (key line: “Sawed in half/By the passage of time”) recalls the quirkier, faux-Americana of True Stories, with hints of Stephin Merritt’s theatrical yearnings. In category of its own, however, was the 11-piece outfit that returned to the stage in frilly tutus for a psycho-killer “Burning Down the House”. If that’s what growing old is about, maybe we shouldn’t get so freaked out after all.