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A once in a lifetime show: David Byrne rocks Boston with new and classic works

Published: November 7, 2008
Section: Arts, Etc.


There comes a time in every journalist’s career when he or she must survey past work and pause for self-reflection. I’ve been going through some of my old articles and discovered a troubling trend toward positive reviews. How am I to be taken seriously if I develop a reputation for scrawling puff pieces of every band that crosses my eardrums? It was in this spirit that I set out to write a mean-spirited tirade as my latest Hoot piece.

Unfortunately, I’d forgotten that I was seeing David Byrne on Friday at the Wang theater perform a set of music based on collaborations he’d done with Brian Eno. Goodbye tirade, hello puff piece.

Those of you who don’t recognize David Byrne by name may know him better as the front man of the band Talking Heads, the avant-pop outfit that spawned such mega-hits as “Once in a Lifetime.” Brian Eno—known equally for his original music and his production of classic albums such as U2’s The Joshua Tree—recently asked Byrne to collaborate with him on a new project.

Eno created the music and Byrne concentrated solely on the lyrics and lead vocals. The result was Everything that Happens Will Happen Today, a melodic, stately album that surpasses anything Byrne has produced in years. But when you go to see an artist of Byrne’s stature, you can’t help but hope for a few classic nuggets from a bygone era.

It was clear from the beginning of the show that audience was revved up to see something more than a musician; they were prepared to see a star. And Byrne was prepared to give us more than music; he was there to show us art.

The band included a bassist, keyboard and synth player, two percussionists, a guitarist, and three back up singers, all of whom were clad in white costumes for Halloween (Byrne sported a dashing white top hat atop his silvery brow). But the audience’s eyes remain transfixed on the three dancers that brought the show into another dimension.

When I heard that Byrne would feature dancers in his show, I immediately envisioned the kind of scantily clad seductresses you might find at a Rolling Stones concert.

But I shouldn’t have been surprised—knowing Byrne’s experimental tendencies—that he would bring along a small contemporary dance ensemble. The dancers did not simply react to their bodies with the music, they weaved their expressive motions into the fabric of the concert’s sensory experience.

Nearly every person stood through the whole show in abject defiance of the rows of chairs that narrowly prevented us from rushing the stage. Byrne opened with “Strange Overtones,” the single from the new album built on a laid-back quasi-disco guitar groove. It sounded like it could have been plucked from an outtake of Steely Dan’s Aja, and its lyrics, based on the old songwriting-as-a-metaphor-for-life motif, echoed the hopeful tone that resounds throughout the album.

Before he paraded any tunes from his most beloved ensemble, Byrne explored a few numbers from a 1981 album with Eno, My Life in the Bush of Ghosts. The album featured percussive soundscapes densely layered over samples from non-traditional sources.

“Help Me Somebody” benefited greatly from the live recreation of the original vocals by Byrne and his backup singers, who transformed the condemnations of a fiery preacher into erratic melody lines.

But the highlights were undeniably Talking Heads songs. “I Zimbra,” a punchy tribal chant over a funk beat retained all its original fervor and included some wildly inventive dance posturing. The new wave textural explorations of “Houses in Motion” offered Byrne the chance to reanimate one of his band’s most criminally overlooked songs.

Unfortunately, a couple tunes classics sounded a little like going through the motions. His version of “Heaven” brought to mind the title of Camper Van Beethoven’s live album—Greatest Hits Played Faster. On “Once in a Lifetime,” which seemed to rely too heavily on pre-recorded samples, Byrne’s vocals took center stage. Perhaps after thousands of times singing that song, he’s found a way to bring urgency and raw vitality into it every night.

But any criticism of the man or the virtual circus that surrounded him amounts to splitting hairs.

The gospel-influenced songs of the new album stood as straightforward counterpoints to the idiosyncratic Talking Heads tunes. And the restlessly creative man himself stood as a counterpoint to other musical artists his age, who rest comfortably on their laurels.

After three encores, Byrne had barely satiated his adoring fans, yours truly included.

So until The Hoot can afford to pay me to see concerts of musicians I don’t like, I remain a reluctant optimist.