Drowned In Sound APRIL 16, 2009 - by Andrzej Lukowski


Accounts of David Byrne's underhandedness tend to depend on whether the teller's name is Tina Weymouth or not, but one thing's for sure - he's pulled off something devilishly sly with his David Byrne Presents The Songs Of David Byrne And Brian Eno concert.

Item one: his old band is never mentioned. Which is a bit crafty, seeing as how a fair chunk of the set is given over to the nervy Africana of 1980's Remain In Light - a record said band notoriously fought tooth and claw to get writing credits on. However, by putting Coldplay producer Brian Eno's name up in lights, Byrne cheerily ducks accusations of megalomania.

Item two: this walks devilishly close to nostalgia package territory, but by deploying vast swathes of material Byrne wrote in his twenties within the context of Everything That Happens Will Happen Today - his and Eno's solid future-gospel missive of last year - he's almost academically justified a revisit to his finest hour.

Item three: it's a point you could make about most of his solo tours, but this is a comparatively conservative presentation. Sure there's a section where the entire band (including Byrne) perform a synchronised dance routine while clad in white tutus, but the songs are pretty much untampered with, even softened, only the two cuts from My Life In The Bush Of Ghosts getting any significant reworking.

So that's a heavily qualified start to an eight-out-of-ten review, eh?

The thing is, not many people reading this are liable to have ever seen Talking Heads live, and fuck knows anybody with a brain would pawn off a few lobes to be given the chance to do so. So you feel wary that an event like this might simply be us gaping in awe at a crisp, clever evening's entertainment that only approximates something we'll never really experience.

I still feel wary even when I momentarily fail to recognise second track I Zimbra, simply because its weird, echoey swarm of plucks and pings is so musically singular that it feels almost transgressive to hear it out of the context of Fear Of Music. A patina of jangled nerves buries but doesn't quite erase the feeling when, after a wry discussion of the difference between samples and found sounds, Byrne howls the hook of Help Me Somebody in a way quite unlike his normal mannered whine, restraint and control jettisoned in a fanatic's scream. Even a sharply executed Houses In Motion - Byrne's jerks, pops and moves syncing with his dancers to create a series of weird, mechanistic tableaux - can't quite do it. And then, about ten songs in, comes Crosseyed And Painless and that's it. The audience snaps, a good chunk (including your correspondent) run to the front to dance, and a complete surrender is issued in the face of the song's detuned skitters and dive-bombing swooshes, that strung out rap about "facts", the ominous/optimistic refrain "I'm still waiting".

Then, for good measure, we're hammered by Born Under Punches and Life During Wartime. Take Me To The River, Once In A Lifetime, Air and The Great Curve aren't far behind. Needless to say nobody sits down. Or if they do they're idiots. But it's not simply about the fact David Byrne is singing these songs... he IS them. The bobbing head, that peculiar voice, the bug-eyed stare, the live art physicality, above all the impression that he still genuinely relates to whatever unfathomable emotional place they originated from; it's so hard to separate the music from the man that worries about his motives seem absurd.

Admittedly it IS slick: the vocalist and percussion-heavy ensemble offer a lush but soft-focus take on proceedings, with the punky More Songs About Buildings And Food conspicuously under-represented, and older tracks like Air shorn of their rawness. But so long as Byrne was at the core he could carry this off with Slayer backing him, and besides, this band is all in aid of accommodating the spreading suburban hymnals of Everything That Happens Will Happen Today, their sedate quirkiness slotting into place just fine.

The drumless lullaby of the album's title track seems an initially bathetic way to end the night, intentionally bringing the crowd down a little after the frenzy of the tutu-enhanced Burning Down The House (an off-remit but hardly unwelcome inclusion). But then a final singer wanders on, also dressed in top to tails white. All Brian Eno does is add a couple of harmonies, but the crowd loses it completely, thronging and surging in an effort to touch the hands that generated a thousand irrational keyboard effects. Byrne stands to the side all smiles, delighted to have his thunder stolen.