By Stephen Dalton
Looking like some kind of vaguely sinister religious cult, David Byrne and his band kicked off their latest British tour dressed in pristine white from head to toe. With his neat shock of ice-white hair and perennially boyish good looks, the eerily youthful 56-year-old is turning into the David Lynch of rock. Behind that mask of deadpan innocence lies a knowing, mischievous sense of humour.
Byrne is in the middle of an extensive world tour to promote his 2008 album, Everything that Happens will Happen Today, his first collaboration with Brian Eno for 28 years. However, the musical menu for this show covers all his past work with Eno, which is a great excuse to revisit three landmark Talking Heads albums in a fresh conceptual context.
Not that he needs an excuse, of course. The show was punctuated by low-key but striking theatrical touches, including a trio of dancers who drew the singer into many of their gymnastic gyrations. On Life is Long, from the new album, all four twirled and zoomed around the stage on wheeled office chairs. Typical Byrne, the mundane meets the sublime. It takes careful choreography to look this nonchalant, hard work to appear this playful.
Tracks from the new album stood up well against the vintage Talking Heads material. Strange Overtones, a self-referential metalyric about the songwriting process, came couched in a deceptively sweet, romantic melody. The heart-twanging country rockers One Fine Day and My Big Nurse also sounded warm and lustrous.
Byrne's current band mostly consists of seasoned session players, which may explain the occasional moments of polished slickness in Bristol. But his trio of backing singers - one of whom arrived mid-show, delayed by visa problems - brought out the lush gospel harmonies in his music, especially the new tracks. Byrne's own voice has also grown richer over the years, acquiring a soulful depth reminiscent of Neil Young.
The Talking Heads songs inevitably earned the most rowdy reception, but Byrne did not overplay his greatest hits, dropping timeless art-funk masterpieces including Once in a Lifetime and Life During Wartime almost casually into the set. Heaven sounded magnificent in its full-band arrangement, an existential rhapsody compressed into three minutes of gorgeous, yearning pop.
For the final rousing encore, Burning Down the House, Byrne and his band came back on stage dressed in ballerina tutus. Much like their eccentric author, these avant-pop classics simply never grow old.