New York Times MARCH 1, 2009 - by Jon Pareles


The album David Byrne made last year with Brian Eno, Everything That Happens Will Happen Today, revived a collaboration that created some of both men's best music in the late 1970s and early 1980s. It was ample reason for Mr. Byrne to build a tour around new and old Songs Of David Byrne And Brian Eno, which arrived at Radio City Music Hall on Friday.

Three decades ago Mr. Byrne, Mr. Eno and Mr. Byrne's former band, Talking Heads, were thinking about mass media, African aesthetics, everyday surrealism, divinity and dance rhythms, among other things.

They came up with smart, strange songs that still echo through New York City avant-rock. Mr. Byrne's career since the 1980s - Talking Heads officially broke up in 1991 - has dipped into enough cultures and collaborations to offer abundant new perspectives.

But something went badly wrong with Songs Of David Byrne And Brian Eno. What once was startling became cute.

It was a high-concept show. Mr. Byrne was the modest, chatty host.

The entire troupe was dressed in white, before a curtain that changed colors in vertical stripes. Choreographed dancers mingled with the musicians. Old, mostly funk-driven songs were interspersed with new ones that leaned toward three-chord country chorales, in a contrast that measured the distance between brash, sometimes nutty innovations and latter-day reflections.

The concert was a revue centered on Mr. Byrne, much as Talking Heads were in the 1983 tour filmed for Stop Making Sense. (Mr. Byrne didn't mention Talking Heads onstage, referring to them only as "other people.") Old songs like Cross-Eyed And Painless or Once In A Lifetime only summoned thoughts of how Mr. Byrne had gotten them far more right the first time.

The expanded Talking Heads band of the early 1980s gave the music clout and counterpoint. New, tepidly efficient arrangements, with Mr. Byrne as the lead and rhythm guitarist in a five-man band with three backup singers, stripped away much of the density, mystery and variety Mr. Eno brought to the album productions.

The spectacle that went with the music in the 1980s was whimsical and enigmatic, hinting at ritual as well as comedy. Mr. Byrne's new troupe was closer to Broadway, with smiley, loose-limbed dancers skipping in and out of the band, often sharing moves with the musicians.

Gimmicky numbers with props - office chairs, electric guitars - were especially distracting.

The set held surprises like My Big Hands, from Mr. Byrne's songs for the 1981 Twyla Tharp dance piece The Catherine Wheel, and Help Me Somebody, from Mr. Byrne and Mr. Eno's 1981 album My Life In The Bush Of Ghosts. (Instead of the radio preacher sampled on the original track, Mr. Byrne declaimed the vocals.) For Burning Down The House, written by Talking Heads without Mr. Eno, the Radio City stage filled with dancers in tutus, including Mr. Byrne.

But far too much of the concert was just clever and neat. What the songs once had, beyond that, was an irrational, illuminating spark.