By Randy Lewis
David Byrne's musical expeditions have taken him over an ever-expanding swath of territory culturally, stylistically and chronologically. But one thing was clear from his career- and planet-spanning performance Saturday at Walt Disney Concert Hall: No matter where he journeys, he'll never get far from the beat.
On his latest album, "Grown Backwards," he dips into classical music with a couple of arias by Bizet and Verdi that work surprisingly well treated as pop songs, and elsewhere incorporates trappings of chamber music into the characteristically eclectic proceedings.
As he put it in "Glass, Concrete and Stone" from the new album: "Looking at happiness / Keepin' my flavor fresh / Nobody knows I guess / How far I'll go."
He didn't go as far as attempting either aria Saturday, but he did bring with him a six-piece string section that played an equal role with a drummer, percussionist, bassist and his own electric and acoustic guitars for a spirited excursion into chamber world pop music.
That music, which now incorporates rock, pop, punk, R&B, minimalism, Latin, African and Japanese elements, still sifts through the bittersweet quirkiness of human experience in the search for often-elusive meaning.
More often than not, the offbeat quality of whatever moment he selects for dissection is the meaning.
Byrne is now 52, and his erstwhile Talking Head is more salt than pepper. But even well into middle age, he remains ever ready to shake his skinny tail as he discovers new permutations of the funk. The underlying message: As good a way as any to move through life is to dance through it.
A third or more of the two-hour set was devoted to Talking Heads material, some of it dramatically recast with strings sawing energetically over the basic guitar-bass-drums foundation.
He took a good-natured jab at his tony surroundings with a squeaky falsetto "Hi, Mickey!" greeting to the capacity crowd. But he also demonstrated that the House of Mouse can indeed rock in the right hands. The sound of amplified music in Disney Hall continues to improve, though it still isn't ideal, and some fans shouted out that they couldn't hear the vocals in their seats behind the stage.
The easygoing host even stepped aside for several minutes while a fan Byrne described as a friend of a friend took center stage midway through the show to propose quite publicly to his girlfriend (she accepted). For this master of the absurd slice-of-life, why not?