By The Star Tribune
It's a year of reinvention at the Walker Art Center, and who better to throw a party for Minneapolis' beloved modern-art museum than the ever-changing David Byrne?
The former Talking Heads frontman headlines the annual Rock the Garden concert today at the Walker, which is closed for renovations until well into next year. Patrons can still stroll the sculpture garden, but the white halls inside are dark.
Byrne himself has seemingly been under construction since the Talking Heads last worked together in 1989. His eight proper solo albums have varied from Latin dance to lush Scottish ballads to the opera-styled pop of his latest CD, "Grown Backwards."
Talking by phone from the road, Byrne, 52, said this kind of shape-shifting is "good for artistic business."
"Artists have to put themselves on the line and in uncomfortable positions a lot of times to stay awake, to avoid getting into a rut," he said.
For Byrne, the constant remolding of his style and sound has come at a price. None of his solo works has seen the kind of commercial attention as the Heads' albums. The singer joked that he "lost a lot of fans right off the bat" by not sticking to the same tune.
"My first record after the Talking Heads was an all-Latin record [1989's 'Rei Momo'], and my second was a symphonic soundtrack [1991's 'The Forest'], so I think I pretty well cleared the deck with those," he said, laughing.
"Grown Backwards" is yet another step in a new direction for Byrne, who covered two opera compositions for the album and used string musicians throughout. But the album is actually more accessible than a lot of his odder works. His ultra-wry sense of humor shines through in songs like "The Man Who Loved Beer," and his knack for blending smart, upbeat dance tunes with pretty ballads is still evident. Even the reworking of the Bizet piece "Au Fond du Temple Saint" -- featuring young piano-popper Rufus Wainwright as a duet partner -- works on a basic pop level.
"I think I'm getting better at integrating my various elements and urges and making them into things that are more cohesive," he said, adding, "Asking Rufus to do that was a no-brainer, because his voice is so operatic already."
For the album and tour, Byrne enlisted a hip chamber group from Austin, Texas, called the Tosca Strings. The Tosca clan got its start playing tango tunes in a rockabilly club, a fact that attracted Byrne when they first hooked up in 2001.
"They're a real group -- like a band, really -- and you can tell it when you hear them," Byrne said.
Tosca is enough of a band, Byrne said, to bring new life to some of the old Talking Heads tunes that he's playing on tour. But as usual, he said that doing a few old songs at each show is as close as he'll get to revisiting his old band, which was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame last year.
"I think nostalgia is a sad thing. I really do," he said, leaving it at that.
Byrne was a bit nostalgic for the times he has worked at the Walker Art Center -- namely in 1988, when he produced "The Knee Plays" there with director Robert Wilson. He said he finds the Walker "surprisingly cutting-edge."
"It doesn't surprise me, but many people can't believe that there can be cutting-edge stuff like that in middle America," he said. "I think it's great that it's not like an elitist museum. People feel comfortable there. I think the Walker has helped people more comfortable with arts in general in the Twin Cities than they do in other cities."
And how does he feels about the Walker's renovations?
"It's good to start anew," he said.