Conventional etiquette says that one shouldn’t wear white after Labor Day. However, I dare even the biggest follower of the rules to tell that to David Byrne: The ex-Talking Heads vocalist, his seven-piece backing band and three dancers all wore white from head-to-toe at Saturday night’s concert at the Fabulous Fox Theatre. Heck, even Byrne’s hair color was a steely gray – although that was about the only thing that betrayed his age during a wonderful, nearly two-hour set. The 56-year-old was lithe and lean, and shook his tush at the crowd, galloped around onstage in circles while playing guitar, did a modified Chuck Berry duck-walk and even brought out moves he patented during Stop Making Sense-era Talking Heads tours.
(Listen to Byrne's new album in its entirety here!)
The concept of the night was that Byrne was performing the works he and Brian Eno have collaborated on over the years. (1983’s non-Eno Talking Heads classic “Burning Down the House” made an appearance, but Byrne, ever a stickler for accuracy, made sure to note that it deviated from the theme.) This conceit meant that the setlist included a healthy portion of this year’s Everything That Happens Will Happen Today, a tune from the sample-heavy 1981 experimental landmark My Life in the Bush of Ghosts and some of the Talking Heads’ best material.
Probably due to the crowd’s lack of familiarity – and in a few cases, weaker material – songs from Happens weren’t always very engaging. The ballad “One Fine Day” dragged and even a small army of acoustic guitars pounding out some serious twang didn’t ruffle “My Big Nurse.” Still, the set-closing, organic synthpop gem “I Feel My Stuff” was a highlight: The ominous song began among a cascade of cracked-glass piano and squelching rhythms and Byrne and most of the dancers performing a choreographed routine that only felt a bit Broadway, and ended with him unleashing a wicked electric guitar solo that built into a loud climax.
"I Feel My Stuff," Live at ACL:
“Never Thought” – a new, e-bow-laden bonus track from Today that Byrne quipped we might have heard, since “you know how the interweb is” – and a mellow “The River” also shone. But overall, pacing of the set was rather uneven; each time a song or two would energize the crowd, an unfamiliar or slower song always seemed to come next and deflated the mood until the next upbeat number. (Case in point: The songs bookending the one-two punch of My Life’s proto-hip-hop “Help Me Somebody” and Talking Heads' “Houses in Motion.”)
The troupe of dancers weren’t always in sync, either, which could either be charming or distracting. At times, the different (but simultaneous) routines physically embodied the interlocking polyrhythms racing through songs such as “I Zimbra,” which was a neat effect; other times, the stage prancing felt a little too college dance show. (The routine during “Life Is Long – which involved office rolling chairs and plenty of deliberate micro-moves, apparently in commentary of cubicle life -- was a little bit of both.) The fantastic light show also deserves special notice: Simple white lights lit the band, but interspersed was the occasional red or dim blue glow and times when the stage background changed colors within the aquamarine-cool spectrum. The net result was a stage that was sharp and richly colored, like a 1940s cartoon or comic book.
As expected, the Talking Heads material drew the biggest crowd reactions – and sounded the best, as interpreted by Byrne’s talented band. (Paul Frazier – a session musician whose resume is beyond impressive -- in particular cut to the quick with his searing basslines, while keyboardist/sampler Mark De Gli Antoni, who’s best known for being in Soul Coughing, made TH’s synth lines sound monstrous and modern.)
Remain in Light’s wiry soul slur “Houses in Motion” drew a standing ovation from the crowd (and it was the fifth song played), while that album’s “Crosseyed and Painless” started with a slowed-down intro, but then exploded into a percussive-heavy wriggling electro-funk party, sending many in the crowd into uncontrolled spasmodic fits. (Special shout-out to the guy who was dodging security and running up and down the aisle from the front orchestra pit to the back, clearly in some nimble-footed new-wave-dancing zone.)
"Crosseyed and Painless," Atlanta 9/20/08
This collective flailing continued during “Once in a Lifetime” – whose lyrics Byrne recited in a clipped, pseudo-lounge-singer style -- and “Life During Wartime.” The latter tune delightfully featured the same sort of running-in-place dance moves it did during Stop Making Sense, and featured a fuller sound that showcased its punks-go-power-walking tempo and style. (Aside: Did Dire Straits pay TH royalties for nicking this song’s keyboard and rhythms wholesale on “Money for Nothing”?)
Theater security gave up trying to keep people out of the aisles by the encores (a seductive, creeping “Take Me to the River,” the aforementioned “House”), as too many people were dancing wildly and throwing their limbs about. I don’t think this was all alcohol-induced, either; most people weren’t obnoxious and sloppy, but were clearly just surrendering to the beat. The rhythms and basslines of these TH songs are primal but not particularly sexual; the dancing had the air of a religious catharsis or a cleansing revival. (A friend I saw after the show corroborated this observation.) Above all, Byrne’s music is very human and organic – even the newest work, whose whole marketing and distribution model hinges on shiny technology. It’s music for humans struggling to find the heart within the futuristic digital age.
The second encore began with a real treat: a performance of Fear of Music’s “Air,” which Byrne said hadn’t been done in thirty years. The dust hardly showed; the askew verses parted for an airborne chorus that found Byrne staring up at the Fox ceiling and singing the simple lyrics with pristine clarity.
What perhaps stood out most last night was his inimitable voice, which was as fluid and sweet as a summer breeze. Though often augmented by backing harmonies, it’s iconic and pure in the way that Bowie, Bono, Jagger and other superstar vocalists are. The show’s final number, “Everything That Happens,” underscored this. The perfect coda, the song was an uplifting, gospel-hymn-like meditation on the fluidity of time and life and temporal measurements – philosophies and enigmas which just so happened to sum up the effect of the preceding show.
Setlist: “Strange Overtones” “I Zimbra” (Talking Heads) “One Fine Day” “Help Me Somebody” (My Life in the Bush of Ghosts) “Houses in Motion” (Talking Heads) “My Big Nurse” “My Big Hands (Fall Through the Cracks)” (solo) “Heaven” (Talking Heads) “Never Thought” (from deluxe version of Happens) “The River” “Crosseyed and Painless” (Talking Heads) “Life Is Long” “Once in A Lifetime” (Talking Heads) “Life During Wartime” (Talking Heads) “I Feel My Stuff”
Encore One: “Take Me to the River” (Talking Heads) “The Great Curve” (Talking Heads)
Encore Two: “Air” (Talking Heads) “Burning Down the House” (Talking Heads) “Everything That Happens”