By Steven Mirkin
David Byrne is no stranger to high-end concert halls: He's trod the board at Carnegie Hall, London's Royal Festival Hall and the Santa Fe Opera House. But as the leader of the first full-sized pop band in the Disney Concert Hall, he seemed a little tentative stepping onto the stage. For this tour he's paired strings with a rhythm section of bass, guitar and two percussionists -- a surprisingly flexible combination that works, capturing the airy complexity of his current disc "Grown Backwards" (Nonesuch) while smartly reconstructing earlier Talking Heads material. But the acoustics of the room proved problematic.
Even with the riser behind the stage curtained to keep the sound from reflecting, the room is still too lively for an amplified band. The six-piece Tosca Strings were unmiked, the percussionists performed behind soundproof panels while Byrne's vocals, his guitar and Paul Frazier's bass and various samples of loops went through the PA. This created an odd juxtaposition, making the sound mix something of a work in progress throughout the evening.
Byrne's guitar was inaudible for the driving "I Zimbra" and turned up too loud during the cleverly rearranged "Psycho Killer," with the strings aping the song's signature bassline in counterpoint to Mauro Refosco's melodic marimba. The bass was particularly troublesome; whether meek or booming, the instrument lacked definition, the sound muddy and thudding. Only toward the end of the 21/4-hour show did the balance seem right, resulting in a thrilling "What a Day It Was" and what Byrne called a "live remix" of "Lazy," both of which received standing ovations from the soldout house.
The most intriguing music of the evening came when the strings left the stage. With Refosco on parade drum and Graham Hawthorne on triangle, "Nothing but Flowers" became pure rhythm; they returned to their kits and transformed the sermon of "Once in a Lifetime" into a lively Carnivale march. It's hard to tell what the sound was like onstage: There were no monitors; instead, the musicians wore ear buds to hear themselves.
Byrne was polite as always, dancing around the stage with the exaggerated, almost ritualized movements he's favored since 1984's "Stop Making Sense," mixing humor with anecdotes about the songs, even allowing a "friend of a friend" of the band to take the stage to propose to his girlfriend. (She accepted.)
It might be too early to tell after this show, but Disney Concert Hall may be a tough sell to touring bands accustomed to heavy amplification. It would be interesting to invite sonically experimental musicians -- such as Byrne, Tom Waits, Bjork or electronic musicians Autrechere and Paul Van Dyk -- to create site-specific perfs that use the room's tricky acoustics.