By Brian Wise
The Regent Theatre, Melbourne
If there was any doubt that the music of the Talking Heads was years (maybe decades) ahead of its time you only have to hear David Byrne's take on his old songs to make you scurry back to classic albums such as 77, More Songs About Buildings And Food, Fear Of Music and Remain In Light.
Not that Byrne is mired in the past. It is just that those early albums were so inventive that they seem to have informed his career - even to this day. Talking Heads was a band that delighted in experimentation and improvisation and Byrne's solo career has similarly been as eclectic as his old outfit.
When he launched into 'Life During Wartime', with the six-piece Tosca Strings (from Austin, Texas) adding colour to the background, the song sounded as relevant threatening and ominous as it did twenty-five years ago. Whether it is about an actual war or a 'war' of relationships, it retains a provocative quality. The angular rhythms that often incorporated African influences also infused the music with a spirit that remains utterly contemporary.
Perhaps that is the secret of Byrne's longevity. (Perhaps it also explains why there were plenty of under-30's in the audience). Many of his early songs were not necessarily about specific subjects but they had the power to conjure up fragmentary images and connections. The fact that Byrne is able to breathe new life into 'Life During Wartime', 'Once In A Lifetime', 'I Zimbra' and 'Psycho Killer' is refreshing and throughout this invigorating evening one never got the sense of the artist being trapped in his past.
Of course, there are some things that never change. This time around Byrne's usual odd wardrobe choice calls for matching dark brown safari suits for himself and the band while his introductions, explanations and reflections were often nervous half-finished sentences that left the audience either laughing or slightly quizzical.
Byrne's band - drummer Dan Hawthorne, percussionist Mauro Refosco and bassist Paul Frazier - was surprisingly powerful in augmenting his guitar while the use of a string section, as he had on his last visit here, is inspired. With its eerie orchestral introduction 'Psycho Killer' leapt from the confines of a CBGB's anthem to something grandly theatrical or cinematic.
Reflecting the musical paths that he has taken over the years since the demise of Talking Heads the set list was truly eclectic. To the originals he added Verdi's 'Un di Felice, Eterea' (on the excellent latest album Grown Backwards), Jimi Hendrix's 'One Rainy Wish', Cole Porter's 'Don't Fence Me In' and even a Cesaria Evora song.
As the evening unfolded with songs such as 'Dialog Box and 'Lazy' (also on the latest album) and 'And She Was' (which became mini-epics in themselves) Byrne's dancing, if you can call it that, became more pronounced. Occasionally he would walk backwards around the stage, returning to the microphone just in time, or just jive on the spot and seemingly invent new moves. Nearing his mid-50's Byrne is not only looking as fit as he ever has but has more than enough energy on stage to shame many of his contemporaries.
In the end, there was a sense that a middle-aged David Byrne had managed to find his place in music and that his vision will allow him to continue to make great music for many years to come.