By The Grand Rapids Press
Life on the road with David Byrne can be a glorious adventure.
Take those peculiar dance moves -- one "butt wiggle" in particular -- that the ex-Talking Heads frontman trots out on stage during his concerts.
"It's like he's got a different dance move every night," marveled violist Ames Asbell of the Tosca Strings, which accompanies Byrne on the My Backwards Life Tour.
"It kind of turns into a joke on stage. He'll kind of look over like, 'How was that one?' He has this little impish look on his face. It's really cute. His spontaneity is really fun and inspiring."
Spontaneity and inspiration long have been hallmarks of Byrne's remarkably varied career, ranging from the intellectually refreshing, art-school punk of the Talking Heads to the world music exploration that's marked his solo work.
Even so, nothing could prepare fans for Byrne's latest recording endeavor: tackling opera and turning it into an extraordinary piece of accessible pop music (along with the usual Byrne-istic rock and pop creations) on his new album, "Grown Backwards."
"It's not whether he can pull it off, because he can pull everything off," Tosca Strings' Leigh Mahoney said in a recent interview with The Press from a Pennsylvania tour stop. She plays violin with the Austin, Texas, quartet that's toured with Byrne before. "It was just his approach to it, that anybody can sing opera ... It's amazing working with him."
Byrne and the Tosca Strings bring some of that amazing music to Frederik Meijer Gardens and Sculpture Park on Wednesday, from classic Talking Heads fodder such as "And She Was," "Psycho Killer" and "Life During Wartime" to an operatic rendition of "Un di Felice, Eterea."
"It's gone over really well," Mahoney said of Byrne's take on the song from Giuseppe Verdi's "La Traviata." "People are just sort of stunned. They yell, 'Bravo' and everything."
For Byrne, it's just another chapter in a career filled with genre-bending, boundary-stretching experimentation that blends the quirky with sheer genius.
In recent years, the longtime New Yorker has felt the aftershocks of the Sept. 11 attacks, along with cathartic breakups of his 15-year marriage to costume designer Adelle Lutz and his longtime stewardship of the adventurous world music label Luaka Bop.
Byrne, 52, moved out of the Greenwich Village brownstone that housed his family, his label and his recording and art studios. He now lives on Manhattan's West Side in the infamous Clinton neighborhood, aka Hell's Kitchen.
That may explain the melancholia that pervades "Grown Backwards," though there's also a sense of rediscovery. Byrne conceded the unsettledness of recent years has been good for the creative process.
"It certainly shakes things up a little bit," Byrne said in a recent Washington Post interview. "It makes you not worry about, 'Hey, what are people going to think of this? Should I do this, or should I not do this?' It kind of helps you follow your instincts a little bit, because some of the other guideposts are not there. You're on unfamiliar ground."
The title of "Grown Backwards," Byrne's debut for Nonesuch Records, refers in part to a songwriting process very different from past works, what Byrne has dubbed a "top down" approach. Rather than rooting his songs in beats, rhythms and textures and then adding lyrics and melodies, he created the new material by humming melodic and lyric fragments into a minirecorder, only later fleshing them out. For someone who long has reveled in the richness of funk, African and Latin rhythms, "Grown Backwards" is the least percussive of Byrne's albums.
It also expands his use of strings, via the Tosca Strings, an ensemble that made a name for itself playing tangos in rock clubs. Chamber-rock is nothing new, of course, but it's new to Byrne. "I love it, and I love it in performing, too. There's a lot more that can be done with it that I haven't touched on," he said.
Byrne's fascination with strings has kept the Tosca Strings -- Mahoney, Asbell, violinist Tracy Seeger and cellist Sara Nelson -- busy in recent years. After touring with Byrne following the 2001 release of his "Look Into the Eyeball" CD, they went into a recording studio in Austin to lay down tracks for "Grown Backwards." Quartet members recently completed a European tour with Byrne and said they've become an ever more integral part of the artist's live shows.
"We're more than being in the background, as maybe we were before ... Some of the songs are just so string-heavy," Mahoney said.
In addition to the string quartet, the tour features violinist Jamie Desautels and cellist Douglas Harvey, along with Byrne's backing band -- bassist Paul Frazier, percussionist Mauro Refosco and drummer Graham Hawthorne.
"The arrangements are great. From the beginning of the tour, we felt like an essential part of the band," Asbell said. "The show's getting tighter and tighter, and audiences are really responding well."
The quartet, formed in 1997 as part of Austin's Tosca Tango Orchestra, is accustomed to the rock-pop arena, having performed or recorded with Byrne, John Cale, Lyle Lovett, Double Trouble and the Dixie Chicks. The quartet is exploring "a lot of possibilities" for recording its own studio album, perhaps starting later this year.
So lest anyone get the notion that Byrne's dabbling in opera makes this tour a stiff, refined affair, think again. The stage antics, unusual wardrobe choices and offbeat Byrne persona still are very much on display.
"They'll know right off the bat that it's not a classical concert," Asbell said.