By Rob Lowman
Same as he ever was? Not really. "I think I've got this touring thing down finally," says David Byrne with a laugh. After years on buses and planes -- first with the Talking Heads, the band he fronted from 1976 to 1988, and then as a solo artist -- Byrne says he's finally enjoying himself on the road.
"We have five bicycles on the bus, which helps us get around and see things while on tour," says the 52-year-old singer-songwriter, who is playing at Miami's Gusman Center tonight with his 10-piece band.
The tour, called My Backwards Life, is in support of Byrne's latest album, Grown Backwards (Nonesuch). While Byrne's signature high, slightly weary-sounding voice is evident, the CD has a less-percussive sound than you would expect. That's because instead of building the songs from the bottom up with rhythms and adding melodies afterward as he's done in the past, Byrne hummed bits of tunes and lyrics into a mini-cassette recorder.
The result is a textured work including elegant string and horn arrangements. Not that drums have been forgotten. There are plenty of funk, African and Latin percussive sounds on Grown Backwards. Adding to the oddity is the inclusion of the arias Un Di Felice, Eterea, from Verdi's La Traviata, and Au Fond du Temple Saint, a duet from Bizet's The Pearl Fishers, which Byrne performs with Rufus Wainwright. Byrne says he collects music on his computer, and has had these two pieces around for a while. "Then I thought if I sang them in my normal voice -- not try to be operatic -- they might work."
Both pieces complement the emotional feel of the album. "All this time there was love, anger, sadness and frustration," Byrne writes on the liner notes of Grown Backwards, talking about the period in which he created the album. The title refers to not only the creative musical process but also to changes and events in Byrne's life.
Since his last true solo album -- the 2001 Look Into the Eyeball (the 2003 Lead Us Not Into Temptation was essentially a soundtrack for the film Young Adam) -- Byrne's 15-year marriage dissolved and he moved out of his Greenwich Village brownstone. (He has a 15-year-old daughter.)
As a longtime New Yorker, the tragedy of 9-11 also affected him. That, too, is reflected in songs on Grown Backwards. On Empire, he takes an imperious tone as he sings, "Young artists and writers, please heed the call. What's good for business, is good for us all," as majestic horns arranged by Carla Bley soar behind him.
"I wanted it to sound like an anthem," Byrne says. But he worries about whether the song works. "It's meant to be ironic, but I'm afraid people will misinterpret it." Byrne makes it clear on the liner notes that he sees the war in Iraq as "the misguided legacy of a nation still reeling."
But tonight's show won't only have songs from Grown Backwards. Byrne and his band, which includes the Tosca Strings and his longtime backing band (bassist Paul Frazier, drummer Kenny Wollesen and percussionist Mauro Refosco), will perform "rearranged" Talking Heads numbers, some songs that didn't make the albums as well as covers for what promises to be an eclectic evening.