David Byrne in Concert: Same As We Wish It Was
Queen Elizabeth Theatre - Vancouver, BC
February 20, 2009
First Appeared in The Music Box, February 2009, Volume 16, #2
Written by Douglas Heselgrave
Wed February 25, 2009, 11:45 PM CST
Every few years, David Byrne alters his style in order to highlight a different side of his persona. Back in 1980, when the Talking Heads performed at the University of British Columbia’s War Memorial Gym, he looked like a stick-figure guitarist who couldn’t make eye contact with his audience as well as a lost science student who was possessed by some very disturbing visions. Songs like Psycho Killer and I Zimbra suggested a poor soul who desperately was in need of help. By the time that the Talking Heads returned to Vancouver in 1983, Byrne had morphed into a performance artist with a campy sense of paranoia. This incarnation of his personality was captured in Stop Making Sense — a film that still ranks as one of the best rock documentaries ever.
From the art-school observations of More Songs about Buildings and Food to the irony of True Stories to the high-life affectations of Naked, Byrne led the Talking Heads all over the musical map before pulling the plug on the band in 1991 to pursue a solo career. He has come to Vancouver many times since then, and with each show, he has embraced a different slate of styles that have ranged from the joyous, Brazilian-influenced music of Rei Momo to the agitated pop of Look into the Eyeball and Grown Backwards. On every occasion, Byrne has had his sight fixed on exploring new vistas in sound. In fact, until his recent sojourn, his live reinterpretations of old material — especially from the Talking Heads’ canon — have always reflected his current musical interests rather than those of his past.
Friday’s show in Vancouver was the latest stop on a tour that celebrates Byrne’s collaborations with Brian Eno, the renowned British producer and musician. While Byrne has never been one for nostalgia, his work with Eno includes three Talking Heads albums, the groundbreaking My Life in the Bush of Ghosts, and last year’s Everything that Happens Will Happen Today. While their newest foray is reason enough to hit the road, the opportunity to revisit the classic songs he and Eno made together was obviously a prospect that was too appealing to resist. Indeed, Byrne was in a mood that was curatorial, if not entirely reverential, as he escorted the audience on a journey through his and Eno’s collected works. It was obvious from the first screeching notes of his guitar that he was having at least as much fun rediscovering the magic of his old material as his fans.
For many in the mostly over-40 crowd who crammed into an almost sold-out Queen Elizabeth Theatre on February 20, it was the most-loved version of David Byrne that greeted them. As he calmly strolled up to the microphone, dressed entirely in white, it was clear that this wasn’t David Byrne, the ethno-musicologist or CEO of his own label, paying a visit in order to educate his audience about polyrhythms This was David Byrne, the off-kilter rock star who, with his guitar turned up to 11, invited his fans to "live in the present and the distant past" and "bypass the Bush and Reagan years entirely." Then, he launched into Strange Overtones, the first single from Everything that Happens Will Happen Today.
By the time he reached I Zimbra, the second song of the night, it was even more apparent that Byrne had come to rock the house. On this tune, which first appeared on Fear of Music, he was joined on stage by Lily Baldwin, Steve Reker, and Natalie Kuhn — three dancers whose every move amplified the energy and fluidity of the music that was conjured by Byrne’s backing band. The trio formed a circle around him, like wind around the eye of a hurricane. As Byrne opened his eyes, after ripping into the first of the night’s many incendiary guitar solos, the professorial, genteel artist who had first greeted the audience was nowhere to be seen. In his place stood the demented figure of decades past, a kind of leering Pee Wee Herman with a dangerous new toy who seemed utterly incapable of standing still.
The dancers — the oldest of whom could not have been half of Byrne’s age — were obviously having the time of their lives as they fed off the energy created by the red-hot, industrial, funk-metal sounds that screeched out of the white-haired musician’s guitar. The members of the crowd, who looked as though they hadn’t had a good shakeout in a long time, gradually rose to their feet and started to wiggle for all they were worth. As the night progressed, the music continued to rise in pitch and frenzy. In the process, the initially shaky bones and self-conscious dancing of the audience gave way to the kind of slippery, freestyle moves that usually are seen only at a rave or a Southern Revival meeting.
To achieve his sound, Byrne jettisoned the huge-band ethos of the Stop Making Sense era. Instead, he opted for a stripped-down unit that featured drummer Graham Hawthorne, percussionist Mauro Refosco, bass player Paul Frazier, and keyboardist Mark Degli Antoni. The addition of three back-up singers (Kaissa, Redray Frazier, and Jenni Muldaur) — each of whom also were credible dancers, percussionists, and acoustic guitarists — allowed Byrne not only to recreate the soaring, eerie gospel sounds of Everything that Happens Will Happen Today, but also to play with the arrangements of the Talking Heads’ material. The performers added grace and dimension to songs like One Fine Day — an acoustic but slightly paranoid, gospel-tinged number from the new album — and Heaven, which in its reconfigured state finally achieved the live treatment that it long has deserved.
It was during Help Me Somebody, a track that originally appeared on My Life in the Bush of Ghosts, however, that the backing vocalists really proved their mettle. On the song’s original incarnation, Eno and Byrne randomly sampled sounds from the radio and organized them into a musical collage that was disjointed, disturbing, and years ahead of its time. Citing copyright problems with sampling, Byrne mused, "Didn’t we used to call it ‘found music?’" Then, he attempted one of the most innovative solutions ever to a legal problem by having his entire entourage — 11 performers in all — recreate different aspects of the original track. To hear each voice sing a slightly different part, weaving to and fro without clashing, was simply breathtaking.
The real story of the night, though, was the re-emergence of David Byrne, the guitar hero. While he’s always had an intuitive sense of rhythm and groove that is second to none, it has been a long, long time since he has placed his guitar playing front and center, like he did on Friday night. Without a second guitarist and backed by a small band that could follow him anywhere, he clearly took great enjoyment from exploring the pyrotechnic possibilities embedded in his old music.
To this end, Byrne seemed to take special delight in revisiting selections from Remain in Light — the Talking Heads’ effort from 1980 that captured the group at the peak of its musical innovation. Listening to the album today, its angular, metallic funk still sounds far ahead of its time. Byrne played songs from the outing, delivering them with such intensity that it seemed as if they had been written yesterday. His screeching guitar solos would have sent Jimi Hendrix packing. Over the course of the night, he dipped deeply into Remain in Light’s material, treating the audience to updated versions of Houses in Motion, Born under Punches (The Heat Goes On), Cross-eyed and Painless, and Once in a Lifetime that were at least the equals of their studio counterparts as well as those featured in Stop Making Sense. With the most perversely gleeful look this side of a latter-day Neil Young, he ripped into solo after solo. Meanwhile, the dancers pulled out all of the stops as they literally played leapfrog over the hunkered-down guitarist. The Great Curve still remains the high point of all of Byrne’s recorded work, and the version he unleashed to bring the main set to its conclusion, was even more uplifting, complex, and "on the groove" than when the Talking Heads was at the top of its game.
For the most part, the material Byrne delivered from Everything that Happens Will Happen Today — such as I Feel My Stuff and Home — was received enthusiastically by the audience. Yet, as interesting as the new songs were, they couldn’t compete with the affectionate place the classics have in his fans’ hearts. So, when Byrne went even further back into his catalogue during the encores — with long funky workouts of Life During Wartime (which was as influenced by the Staple Singers’ version as it was by the Talking Heads’ original) and Take Me to the River — the audience came completely unhinged. It was, at this moment, hard to believe that a happier group of people was gathered anywhere else in the world.
By the time the band returned for its third set of encores, which began with a slinky, electronica-tinged version of Burning Down the House — the only song performed this evening that was not born from a collaboration with Eno — the crowd was in ecstasy. All of the aches and pains that would greet the aging masses in the morning were nonexistent. Everything was perfect, and everyone shimmied like, well, houses on fire.
On February 20, Byrne gave his audience something more than a terrific night of music. He showed his fans not only that real joy and creativity were within their grasp, but also that it is possible to age gracefully. When, two hours after taking the stage, he came back one final time to sing the title track to Everything that Happens Will Happen Today, all of the buzz and trouble of a long week’s work had long since faded away. As the singer, dripping and beaming, took his final bow, he sent the crowd out into the warm February night, and for at least a few minutes, the intimacy of shared memory and experience spilled onto the streets as strangers hugged each other and said, "When was the last time you saw such a good show?" Not surprisingly, no one could remember.
Of Further Interest...
Everything that Happens Will Happen Today is available
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1 Star: Pitiful
2 Stars: Listenable
3 Stars: Respectable
4 Stars: Excellent
5 Stars: Can't Live Without It!!
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