By Simon Mckenzie
David Byrne Usher Hall
IT'S hard to imagine, but hundreds of people were dancing deliriously in the aisles of the Usher Hall on Saturday night to the sounds of a six-piece string section. The august venue’s security guards didn’t deem it appropriate behaviour, and everyone was told to return to their seats before the ensemble started to play Verdi’s Un di Felice, Eterea from La Traviata.
Such extraordinary scenes, however, are a little more understandable when you consider that the string section was accompanying former Talking Heads main man David Byrne, and before the Verdi aria he had raised the roof with Once in a Lifetime.
Along with the Tosca Strings - a youthful sextet Byrne chanced upon playing their own arrangements of punk and grunge songs in a smoky bar in Austin, Texas - the eclectic singer was accompanied by his long-standing three-piece backing band, bassist Paul Frazier, percussionist Mauro Refosco and drummer Kenny Wollesen.
All profoundly gifted musicians, they were more than equal to the task of beefing up Talking Heads numbers like Road to Nowhere, while subtly driving Byrne’s less visceral new solo material.
There was little hint of the high-spirited public disorder to come when Byrne and his cohorts took to the stage and began with the gently lilting Glass, Concrete and Stone, the opening song from Byrne’s most recent album, Grown Backwards. Then came I Zimbra, the groundbreaking Afro-dub fusion number from Talking Heads’ 1979 album Fear of Music. No less vibrant for the presence of violins and cellos, it still sounds ahead of its time despite the 25 years that have elapsed since it was laid down in New York.
A return to his solo catalogue with The Other Side of This Life gave the Tosca Strings their head, but its jaunty Broadwayesque arrangement led Byrne to jokingly remark that "Andrew Lloyd Webber had better start selling his real estate".
The few hardy souls who had dared to dance were joined by a mass movement when Byrne kick-started Road To Nowhere, and then when Frazier began to play the unmistakable staccato bass part from Once in a Lifetime it was a free-for-all. Such gratuitous enjoyment was evidently too much for the stewards, but Un di Felice, Eterea soon had everyone returning to their seats anyway. It wasn’t a deliberate move on Byrne’s part, however, because when he introduced What a Day That Was, he remarked: "The security guy’s just told me that yes, it’s OK to dance," after asking that the crowd be given a little more leeway.
Needing no further encouragement, hundreds took to the aisles again. After a fast and slightly flat version of Blind - a scathing take on American politics that no doubt gets an airing every time a presidential election looms - the band joined arms for a bow and left the stage, milking an unseemly amount of applause from the audience before returning for two encore numbers, including the superb paean to paranoia that is Life During Wartime.
Another exit and another massive ovation were followed by an unaccompanied rendition of Heaven before the band returned for a delightful take on a recent crossover hit for the Byrne. "I’m wicked and I’m lazy," he sang - wicked he may be, but lazy musicians don’t stay at the top of their game for the better part of three decades.