By Joan Anderman
David Byrne is one of the few stars of the rock era who is both genuine eclectic and deep musician. During a dozen years with the Talking Heads he masterminded the group's exploration of art-funk, New Wave minimalism, radio-ready guitar pop, and intricate world beat. Byrne's 10 solo albums -- the latest is "Grown Backwards," for Nonesuch -- have been no less adventurous, spanning electronics and dance theater, Latin traditions, and straight-ahead rock. The 52-year-old icon was greeted with a raucous standing ovation when he took the stage Thursday at Berklee Performance Center, both in acknowledgement of his stellar achievements and in anticipation of what the packed audience seemed to know would be a truly sublime night of music.
They were not disappointed. While the 10 men and women onstage looked like nothing so much as a UPS delivery brigade in their matching brown trousers and button-down shirts, the music was an explosion of color: pristinely buffed and brilliantly rich excursions stretching back to 1977's ominous "Psycho Killer" and rejiggering -- a mere two months after its release -- a generous portion of Byrne's effervescent, multiethnic new disc.
His large ensemble was a model of dynamism. On one side of the stage a crack core of drums, percussion, and bass dispensed a running rhythmic commentary. On the other, Texas-based chamber group the Tosca Strings, featured on nearly every track of "Grown Backwards," saturated the songs with a burnished, complicated glow. Cellos and violins sawed whirling harmonies on "I, Zimbra," dropped notes like ornaments onto a cover of Lambchop's "The Man Who Loved Beer," and unfurled lush swaths of melody on "Glass, Concrete, and Stone."
Trim, gray-haired Byrne, perhaps the only aging rocker who is able to successfully wear saddle shoes on the concert stage, was a congenial host -- telling amusing stories and explaining his songs. When the music began, he was an elegant, unpretentious performer. In a voice devoid of conventionally attractive tones, he wrestled Cesaria Evora's "Ausencia" (a difficult, sensuous ballad) to the ground and had his way with it. A handful of Talking Heads gems -- "Heaven," "Blind," "Once in a Lifetime," "Life During Wartime" -- released the herky-jerky soulman within, who ran in place and swiveled robotically, in turn freeing the geeks (who wouldn't be caught dead dancing in the aisles at any other show) to spring into action.
The only rough spot was Verdi's "Un Di Felice, Eterea" one of a pair of arias Byrne recorded for the new album. The possibilities of a startling juxtaposition -- rock iconoclast does the Italian masters -- never materialized, and the sound of Byrne dragging and pushing his voice to places it wasn't made to go was more painful than intriguing. But it hardly diminished the pleasures of this joyful, accomplished, eclectic, and deeply musical performance. Argentinian singer-songwriter Juana Molina began the evening with a set of atmospheric folk songs -- intimate, muted tangles of ethereal electronics and acoustic guitar topped with water-clear singing -- that were utterly original and thoroughly captivating.
Joan Anderman can be reached at [email protected]
By Joan Anderman