By John Aizlewood
In the 21 years since Naked, the final Talking Heads album, leader David Byrne’s solo career has chugged along pleasantly enough, but no more.
Perhaps it’s his new relationship with the groundbreaking American photographer Cindy Sherman or perhaps it’s the realisation that at 56 he still has much to prove, but suddenly Byrne is bursting through boundaries once again.
Last year’s collaboration with Brian Eno, Everything That Happens Will Happen Today and his lovely soundtrack to the US television programme Big Love suggested a creative stirring, but even those fine albums failed to serve notice that as a live act Byrne is wholly and fabulously reborn.
Last night, the second of Byrne’s two for the Southbank’s Ether festival which runs until 24 April, was a two-hour cornucopia of delight covering Byrne’s two albums with Eno, Talking Heads staples and My Big Hands (Fall Through The Cracks) from his 1981 collaboration with choreographer Twyla Tharp. Yet it was more than catalogue cherry-picking.
From the moment the Scottish-born New Yorker emerged with his four-man band and three backing singers, there was magic afoot.
Like some Fifties cricket team, the entire ensemble were clad from head to toe in white — the colour of Byrne’s hair and his braces — and they were often joined by three white-wearing dancers, choreographed in the faux-natural style (the one that requires intensive rehearsal to look off-the-cuff) of Fatboy Slim’s Praise You video.
When they weren’t jiving with the backing singers or grappling with each other like tactile ninjas, the dervish dancers leapfrogged over Byrne during a jaw-droppingly spectacular version of Talking Heads’s Once In A Lifetime; they caught him as he dropped — still singing — during Houses In Motion and they joined him on swivelling office chairs for Life Is Long.
In lesser hands, with weaker music the dancers would have hijacked the show. Instead, sound and vision enhanced each other and when the dancers took a breather nobody’s attention wandered. In fact, the crowd adored it and Crosseyed And Painless was so irresistibly funky that it invoked a mass, spontaneous charge to the front which startled and delighted Byrne, although surely it happens every night he plays.
And for the third encore, a special treat when Eno himself — dressed in white of course — added backing vocals to the heartbreaking lullaby Everything That Happens. Live music really doesn’t get any better than this. Breathlessly brilliant.