By John Shand
His grin at the end seemed tinged with surprise at the audience's rampant enthusiasm. David Byrne probably never expects people to really love his work.
His humility is implicit in a presence with no "Hello Sydney, how ya doin'?" front at all. He may mumble, unexpectedly abort sentences and be endearingly awkward, but the upside of this absence of showbiz veneer is an intimacy that he establishes with every audience member, and which then carries into his songs.
He continues to redefine the nexus of art and rock, without the art disturbing rock's combustibility, and without the rock overly limiting the art. It is, like his presentation and his choices in programming the repertoire, a fine balancing act.
Even more than in his Sydney Festival appearances of three years ago, Byrne delved into all the nooks and crannies of his career, and as on that tour the old songs often glowed anew thanks to arrangements leaning heavily on the six-piece Tosca Strings - still including the arrestingly pre-Raphaelite Sara Nelson on cello - fattening out Byrne's spiky guitar and his bass-drums-percussion band.
The biggest surprise lay in the tunes he chose to cover. Last year's Grown Backwards album included questionable performances of two operatic arias, and here he wheeled out Un Di Felice, Eterea (from La Traviata) to more convincing effect. Then there was Jimi Hendrix's One Rainy Wish, which had a strong wind from the east blowing through the strings and, more bizarrely, a Latinised reading of Cole Porter's Don't Fence Me In (which could be Byrne's theme song).
These, however, were flirtations. The real affair was with his own material, with its odd combination of nihilism, compassion, angst and innocence. Talking Heads songs punctuated the set like reassuring mile posts on the two-hour journey, including I Zimbra, Road to Nowhere, Once in a Lifetime, Psycho Killer, the gorgeous Heaven and the rousing Life During Wartime.
More recent gems such as The Great Intoxication and the charming Like Humans Do pointed to the consistency of Byrne's output and the underlying homogeneity within the ostensible diversity.
The evening was opened by Melbourne's Architecture in Helsinki. They would move closer to fulfilling the obvious imagination at work if the same emphasis was placed on the singing as was placed on swapping instruments.