Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Concert Review: David Byrne @ Radio City Music Hall, 2/27/09

At 8:20 pm on Friday night, David Byrne, and seven back-up musicians took the stage at Radio City Music Hall in front of a wildly eager and anticipatory audience. Byrne once again returned to his New York City musical roots, this time to promote the release of his 2008 collaborative album with Brian Eno titled Everything That Happens Will Happen Today. The album marks the first collaboration between the two since 1980 for their wildly ambitious, world-encompassing LP My Life in the Bush of Ghosts. Their newest effort is a huge departure from their last, this time taking a much poppier approach that still manages to intrigue and succeed.

Byrne and his back-up band (consisting of two percussionists, bass, keyboard, guitar, and back-up singers) took the stage in completely white uniforms as if they had just arrived from the future where all humans wear the same, regimented clothing. The set kicked off unsurprisingly with the single “Strange Overtones” from the new album, a track that singly embodies the approach that he and Eno have taken this time around. Byrne uses fresh, polyrhythmic beats and a solid groove in many of the new songs as a foundation for his hybrid, Pavaratti-meets-Urkel vocals. While at times sounding like a frail man being buried by the weight of the world, he intermittently soars above the music with commanding, operatic vocals that stunningly sound just as good today as they did 30 years ago.

One can think of Byrne’s new tour appearances as less of a concert than a fully-fledged theatrical performance. Throughout much of the show, I was often reminded of the nutty, yet hypnotizing stage tactics that he exhibited throughout his masterful performance in Jonathan Demme’s 1984 concert film Stop Making Sense. At Radio City, Byrne continued to mix art and rock on stage, most notably through consistently amazing choreographed dance. For each song, we see Byrne’s three back-up dancers leap, roll, slide, and spin around him as he performs. At times, Byrne would even fall into step with the three other dancers, as if naturally succumbing to the beat that surrounded him.

One of the biggest perks of the show was the surprisingly large number of old Talking Heads songs that were included in the setlist. Since the night was dedicated to Byrne’s collaboration with Eno, many albums in the T-Head’s discography were fair game to be pulled from, including 1978’s More Songs About Buildings and Food, 1979’s Fear of Music, and of course 1980’s Remain In Light. Despite the strength of the newer material, the material performed from these albums was where the concert really felt like something special. Several managed to get members of the audience of all shapes, sizes, and ages up and shaking their groove thing, most notably “Crosseyed and Painless”, “Take Me To The River”, and “Burning Down the House” (which concluded the second of three encores with the entire band wearing tutuseventually being inundated by a flurry of 30-40 younger, female ballerinas).

Byrne is certainly one of the most important influences on the history of rock and roll. As one of the key pioneers of the New Wave movement in the late 70s, his innovation within the genre resonates in much of the music being put out by today’s artists. Now, 35 years after the formation of Talking Heads, his career comes full circle in the city where his roots lie. What began as playing small gigs in the filthy, beer-soaked CBGB’s has slowly (and deservedly) evolved into selling out shows at one of the most regal and elegant performance halls in the world. We can only hope that he continues to press on with his legacy, and that his absurdly influential music never stops making sense to his millions of inspired fans.

David Byrne - Houses In Motion