By John Young
On just about any given night in any given concert hall, performers and their audiences develop some rapport. On good nights they share real symbiosis. And at their height they work together like David Byrne and the crowd at his Byham Theater show Thursday night.
Byrne established an intimate tone right away by unceremoniously taking the stage to introduce his opening act, Juana Molina. He explained how he bought Molina's last album on the recommendation of a Web site claiming, "if you like Sigur Ros and Bjork, then you'll like Juana Molina."
"They were right," Byrne said. While Molina's music wasn't as atmospheric as the former or as distinctive as the latter, it was nonetheless eerily pretty and quiet, involving pop sung in Spanish and played on pitch-bending keyboards and acoustic guitar.
When Byrne took the stage with his three-piece core band and the six-member Tosca Strings, he spent a bit of time fiddling with a noisy mike stand. That gave rambunctious audience members, tipped off by WYEP DJ Rosemary Welsch's introduction, the chance to serenade Byrne with "Happy Birthday" one day early.
"You can drop the presents in the lobby," Byrne joked, then proceeded to dole out the musical gifts. Fans received songs such as "Glass, Concrete and Stone," from the new disc "Grown Backwards," with nearly as much enthusiasm as vintage Talking Heads tracks like "I Zimbra."
Forty minutes into the set, though, the room finally erupted. Byrne seemed to sense the crowd's growing enthusiasm, and restlessness, during "This Must Be the Place (Naive Melody)." At that point he gave the string players a break and told the crowd to get up and shake it if the spirit moved them. Just like that, the aisles were packed with dancers, many of them from Byrne's core listenership of fortysomethings, as Byrne's stripped-down quartet rolled out a buoyant "Road to Nowhere" and a stark, edgy "Once in a Lifetime."
You'd think the party atmosphere would have waned when Byrne came out of those two songs with the slow, melodramatic, operatic piece "Un di Felic, Eterea." It didn't. Most listeners stood for the remainder of the 90-minute set and two encores, some to sing and sway along, some to jump and dance, and some just to be sure they weren't missing one ecstatic moment. The crowd even remained upbeat through dark cuts such as "Psycho Killer," to which Byrne added a frightening atonal guitar coda, and the far-too-relevant "Life During Wartime."
The crowd screamed so loud on the "Wartime" line "Heard about Pittsburgh, PA" that Byrne had to drop character and grin. Byrne finally ended on a more upbeat note, playing what he dubbed "a live version of the remix" of "Lazy," his 2002 dance hit with UK DJs X Press 2.
The show ended with Byrne graciously accepting another (was it his third, fourth, fifth?) long, loud ovation. The audience, sweaty and spent but smiling and chatty, slowly left the hall knowing they'd just been a part of a great and rare concert experience.
By John Young