By Robert Hilburn
It sure felt good Sunday at David Byrne's Hollywood Bowl concert to hear new music as smart, sensual and passionate as the kind he made in the '70s and '80s with Talking Heads — only it wasn't Byrne who played it.
Arcade Fire, a young rock band from Montreal whose music has the thrilling ambition and purpose of the early Heads, is such a confident and gifted unit that it probably hasn't met a stage — or audience — that it can't conquer.
The group, whose debut album on indie Merge Records was one of the critical favorites of 2004, has moved in just six months from the intimacy of local clubs to the vast reaches of the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival and on to the Bowl without blinking.
After their own commanding set, the members of Arcade Fire, whose artful style was influenced by the Heads, joined Byrne on stage for one number during the pop Renaissance Man's joyful return to the memorable music he made with the Heads at the start of his long, eclectic journey.
Both as the mastermind behind that celebrated quartet and as a restless solo artist, Byrne has crisscrossed musical genres so aggressively that he poses a challenge to anyone who likes to define artists by a single category.
Rolling Stone magazine's website uses six labels to describe the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame member's approach, including postmodern pop, alternative/punk and world beat — and it still only feels like a good start.
You also have to add a classical component (Byrne's latest album, "Grown Backwards," includes works by Bizet and Verdi) and, maybe most important, impresario.
Of all the creative hats, impresario was the most valuable during the veteran musician's 75-minute set Sunday that opened KCRW's World Festival 2005 season at the Bowl.
Two of his best moves were adding to the bill Arcade Fire and the Extra Action Marching Band, a delightfully irreverent San Francisco outfit that is the marching-band equivalent of the annual Doo Dah Parade in Pasadena. Byrne deserves extra kudos for also putting Si*Sé on the bill. It's a New York group that requires almost as many labels to define as Byrne, starting with electronica/Latin/hip-hop.
It has been almost 15 years since the Heads formally called it quits, and Byrne has been active on a variety of fronts, including writing music for films and theater.
His solo albums have reflected much of the wry sensibilities, jagged rhythms and cultural outreach that made the Heads such a splendid rock force in the '70s and '80s.
But that solo music, which dominated the opening half of Byrne's set, rarely captures the full urgency or liberating breakthrough of the best Heads numbers. Songs such as "The Great Intoxication" and "Like Humans Do" tend to be simply charming and quaint.
Things didn't come alive until the midpoint in the set, when Byrne kicked in with "Road to Nowhere," an alluring tune from the Heads' "Little Creatures" album. From that point on, Byrne kept close to choice Heads material, including such striking favorites as "Psycho Killer" and "Burning Down the House."
To add seasoning to the numbers, Byrne, decked out Sunday in a pink linen suit, augmented his regular musicians with the six-member Tosca Strings, who also joined him on the "Grown Backwards" album.
Byrne's most inspired move, however, was the Extra Action outfit. Complete with flag girls and scantily clad dancers, the band marched through the Bowl audience before adding a touch of anarchy and spice to the final numbers on stage that resembled a Fellini dream sequence.
The segment was a tribute to Byrne's sense of showmanship and the absurd. In his songs, he often describes an innocent's journey through the wonders and mysteries of life, and the marching band was right in step with that vision.
Arcade Fire also employs a strong visual sense of the absurd. While leader Win Butler sings songs of loss and resilience with an intensity reminiscent of the early Elvis Costello, two members of the group got so caught up in the swirling rhythms of the band that they carried on like loons who would be welcome in the marching band. The pair ended up hitting everything around them, including each other, with drumsticks — all in time with the music.
Echoes of Talking Heads can be heard in the sophisticated rhythms of Arcade Fire's music and in the way Butler sings in high-pitched vocal yelps à la Byrne.
But the seven-piece band also exhibits a hint of U2-like splendor, compassion and even spiritual undercurrent. The debut album, "Funeral," was recorded soon after the deaths of some family members, and the songs deal with moving past those losses and other emotional hurdles. The Fire sometimes employs a touch of punk fervor to urge against apathy.
The band's song "Wake Up" is such an invigorating call to action that U2 has been playing the Fire's recording of it over the sound system as U2 walks on stage on its tour — quite an endorsement of the young band.
In music as in life, you can tell a lot about a person by the company he keeps. From the Extra Action band to Arcade Fire, Byrne's companions Sunday were a tribute to his continuing musical vision. Even if his music is less searing than it once was, his commitment to his art and audience remains unbending.