Working overtime to reinvent the past

Via The Guardian


This month, David Byrne submitted himself for a grilling on US TV by Stephen Colbert, the satirist who gave George Bush a thin time of it at the 2006 White House correspondents' dinner. "When is being on the cutting edge, and new and fresh and innovating, going to get stale?" mused Colbert.

Cynical voices might suggest that Byrne rescinded his place on the cutting edge when he announced this tour, on which he exclusively performs music he has made in collaboration with Brian Eno. It's not exactly one of those plays-a-classic-album-in-full shows that have become omnipresent in recent years, but it appeals to the same retrospective impulse. Whatever the merits of Everything That Happens Will Happen Today, the country and gospel-tinged album with which Byrne and Eno reignited their partnership last year, the real draw is the promise Byrne will be performing tracks from Talking Heads' most fertile period, between 1978 and 1980.

A mention of the new album's title gets a cheer, but it's the 29-year-old Crosseyed and Painless that brings the audience to their feet. Here, say detractors, is music that once startled with its newness, now dished up as cosy nostalgia. "This groove is 20 years old," sings Byrne in Strange Overtones. That, it has been suggested, is the problem, although it's worth noting how timeless the material is.

There is also the weight of history to contend with. Talking Heads' most famous live staging of these songs, during the December 1983 shows at Hollywood's Pantages theatre, documented in Jonathan Demme's concert film Stop Making Sense, was compared to the work of Jean-Luc Godard, Fritz Lang, Joseph Beuys and Fred Astaire. This show might not have quite the same impact, but still suggests a mind working overtime to think up intriguing ways of presenting music live. During Air, Byrne and band are joined by three dancers. They are there for much of the show, performing hypnotic routines that often include singer and musicians.

There is also the question of how Byrne will cope performing tracks from 1981's My Life in the Bush of Ghosts, an album on which he and Eno may have invented sampling, but which was clearly never intended to be played live. He gets around it by singing and declaiming the snatches of radio dialogue and found vocals himself. It sounds remarkable, a reinvention rather than a recreation of the past. At moments like that, Byrne seems to be dealing in the opposite of nostalgia, as inventive as he ever was.

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