What is David Byrne interested in as a musician? What does he like, and what makes him cranky? There’s probably no multiplatinum-selling rock frontman who’s more deliberately Sphinx-like—-he’s usually had some complaint or other to make about consumerism, but he’s more likely to soak those messages in abstraction (“Heaven”) or irony (“[Nothing But] Flowers”) than in anything resembling outrage. Saying that he’s a tough guy to figure out, though, is not the same thing as saying he’s disinterested. For an hour and 45 minutes at the Warner Theatre last night, he played an energetic set that was drawn largely from his collaborations with Brian Eno, from their new album Everything That Happens Will Happen Today back to their work with “other musicians,” as he said at the start of the show. Maybe saying the words “Talking Heads” is what makes him cranky.
To be sure, the man likes to keep things stage-managed. Byrne, along with his four-piece backing band, trio of backup singers, and trio of dancers, were all dressed head-to-toe in white and choreographed for songs that ended with blackouts more often than not. The dancers in particular were meticulously arranged, moving across the stage in well-bleached outfits and disarming pasted-on smiles—-as if this show was a detour from their main gig performing in a Broadway musical version of Todd Haynes’ Safe. The setlist had a calculated push-and-pull as well, shifting from the polyrhythmic “I Zimbra” to the drowsier, acoustic “One Fine Day,” and from there into a powerfully reconceived “Help Me Somebody,” a track from 1981’s Byrne-Eno collaboration My Life in the Bush of Ghosts. There, Byrne replaced the Pentecostal fervor of the original’s samples with his own hectoring vocals, and between his shouts and insistent guitar vamping, it was one of the rare moments he seemed to genuinely revel in.
Which is to say, at that moment he looked the way other, more emotionally expressive musicians do when they’re having a blast. Byrne’s having a good time too, but he clues you into that not by engaging in audience patter or even by breaking much of a sweat—-he does it by projecting the supreme confidence of a guy who knows he has a bulletproof back catalog to work with. So in a way, Byrne’s chill persona is what made a track like “Crosseyed & Painless” so rousing. With the band toiling busily around him and getting the crowd dancing, he can sink into the tune’s curiously gnomic lyric. A great David Byrne show involves a host of musical ideas embedded in some art-school fuckery. But it mainly involves playing half of Remain in Light.
Photo by Flickr user miamabanta.