By Michael Hogan
There’s always a trade-off when you go see a musical “legend” in concert. You know you’re going to hear some songs that you absolutely love, but how disappointing the artist playing them will sound depends on a number of factors—age, engagement with contemporary culture, years elapsed since last new album, quantity of drugs and booze consumed during heyday. Some guys lose their voices (Al Green on the Grammys, anyone?) and others lose their life force. I remember seeing Television a few years back and thinking that Tom Verlaine must have lived way harder back in the day than I’d realized. He looked eager to finish the show and get back to his IV drip.
David Byrne was born in 1952, so I’m not sure how it’s possible that he was the most vital, energetic person in attendance at his sold-out Radio City Music Hall concert last night. But he was. Dressed head-to-toe in pristine white, and alternating between a white Stratocaster and a red dreadnought, Byrne barely broke a sweat during a two-hour-plus set drawn from his various collaborations over the years with electronic-music visionary Brian Eno. (Byrne performs again at Radio City tonight.)
Byrne and Eno are both known for being pretty avant-garde, so what’s surprising was how accessible most of the music was. Not just the hits from Eno’s days producing the Talking Heads—“Take Me to the River” (an Al Green cover!), “Houses in Motion,” “Once in a Lifetime,” “Burning Down the House”—but also the songs from their recent album together, Everything That Happens Will Happen Today. The title is vintage Byrne—a clever piece of nonsense that somehow hints at something really profound—and my favorite song from it, “One Fine Day,” was inspired by What Is the What, Dave Eggers’s 2006 book about one of the Lost Boys of Sudan.
So here’s my theory on why Byrne is so youthful, and why his concert felt as contemporary and relevant as any Bowery Ballroom set by the latest blogosphere buzz band: the guy keeps up. He doesn’t sit around all day reminiscing with his fellow dessicated rock stars. He reads, he thinks, he sees art and film and music. And his creative portfolio is radically diversified. He paints, draws, blogs, directs, runs a record label, composes for film, composes for dance, designs funky bike racks, and god knows what else. Check out his Wikipedia page: it’s all over the place. (Judging from the clarity of his voice and his ability to jump around without losing his breath, Byrne also takes excellent care of his body.)
Neil Young, whom I caught at Madison Square Garden a few weeks back, is similar: he’s constantly making bizarre movies, and he’s invested an enormous amount of time and energy into his Linc-Volt project, whose goal is to turn an old Lincoln Continental into an electric hybrid that gets 100 to the gallon. Not every new album he makes is good, and not every new song he plays is the next “Powderfinger,” but he’s worth keeping up with because he never checks out. On life, that is. He checked out of the L.A. rock scene decades ago, returning only for the occasional gigantic C.S.N.Y. paycheck, and the move may have added 30 years to his career.
Byrne doesn’t live on a ranch, and he probably has a lot less money than Neil Young. He’s a New Yorker, through and through. But he has a very urban way of doing his own thing. If you see enough live music here, you’re bound to spot him in the audience: that shock of white hair is hard to miss. He’s always watching, absorbing, digesting what’s happening.
There’s a lesson for all of us here, but I don’t want to talk about that just now. What I want to talk about is my favorite moment of last night’s concert. The second encore ended with “Burning Down the House,” a Talking Heads hit from 1983. For reasons I couldn’t fathom, Byrne was wearing a white tutu. So was everyone else on stage: the band, the trio of dancers who had been entertaining us all night. All adhered to the all-white dress code, and all wore tutus.
[RCMH tutus] The payoff came two-thirds of the way through the song. Moving in unison, Byrne and his backups swayed toward the right side of the stage, then turned and started moving in the opposite direction. Behind them, from the wings, came a huge group of dancers—mostly female but with a few males scattered in—all wearing tutus. Meanwhile, Byrne and his group were almost at the left side. Just before reaching the end of the stage, they turned back, and out came a new group of tutu’d dancers from that side, following them and falling in with the first group. Then all the dancers lined up and started doing Rockette kicks behind Byrne and his band, who were belting out the song’s climax.
It was something no group of chart-topping 25-year-olds could pull off. There was a generosity, a confidence, and a mature sense not only of style but of place and history that made it work. Byrne was playing with the idea of Radio City Music Hall, but also paying tribute to it.
After it was over, Byrne introduced his 30-something choreographer: Noémie Lafrance, who is probably best known for turning the McCarren Park Pool in Williamsburg into a vast performance space back in 2005, before the pool’s short-lived tenure as a hipster music venue.
See what I mean? Tuned in. If it keeps David Byrne young, just think what it can do for you.