Concert Review: David Byrne

Concert Review: David Byrne

Byrne put on an impeccable recital that was politically charged, musically sound and almost slickly perfect.

Keller Auditorium
Portland, OR 05/27/2018

(Photo: Alan Lawrence)

The concert begins with the man in a gray suit sitting at a table, contemplating a human brain, light illuminating his brilliant shock of white hair. He is thin and debonair. He is barefoot. The stage around him is completely empty, the musicians must be playing their instruments somewhere in the wings. There is a synchronicity at play as this same man, in a younger incarnation, once took the stage in a very large suit, alone save a boombox, beginning what has become one of the most beloved concert tours ever.

As David Byrne, now 66 years old, has gracefully aged into one of rock’s elder statesmen, he is not only putting out new music (see this year’s American Utopia) but taking stock of the past. Though none of Byrne’s solo output has reached the cultural significance as his work with Talking Heads, he hasn’t gone down the greatest-hits route that many of his peers have followed at this advanced age. A Byrne performance is more than a concert, it’s a show. It’s an event. Over the course of 21 songs which featured a survey of Heads favorites, new songs and deep cuts, Byrne put on an impeccable recital that was politically charged, musically sound and almost slickly perfect.

Byrne opened with new song “Here,” members of his band slowly taking the stage as he paced about, brain in hand. As the singer shifted to “Lazy,” from Grown Backwards (2004), the 11-person group filled the stage, instruments strapped to their bodies, including six musicians with percussion instruments. Almost everyone was barefoot, and for the duration of the concert they moved in perfectly choreographed precision. A lot of time and effort went into planning this show. The empty stage featured no screens or pyrotechnics. Meticulousness and care warranted nothing more.

During the first two songs, the audience seemed unsure whether it should remain seated or get up and dance. When Byrne launched into Heads classic “I Zimbra,” almost everyone in the orchestra got out of their seats and danced along. Even though the audience remained standing for much of the concert, they were the most ecstatic during the eight Talking Heads songs. Unlike a lot of legacy acts, Byrne doesn’t pander with an easy setlist. Though he did play seven new songs, he also sprinkled in rarities from his solo career, including a song from an album he did with St. Vincent (“I Should Watch TV”) and another he recorded in collaboration with Fatboy Slim and Dizzee Rascal (“Toe Jam,” which features a deliciously NSFW video).

Though there were minor quibbles—the lack of live horns on “Blind” removed some punch from the song, some of the Heads choices were too obvious (“Once in a Lifetime,” “Burning Down the House”)—the concert was close to perfection. Beyond the Heads songs, Byrne refused to play it safe. He did a four-song run of new songs and one from Look into the Eyeball (2001) and featured a song he wrote for a musical about Imelda Marcos (“Dancing Together”) during one of the show’s two encores.

Perhaps the biggest risk came at the end when Byrne and company covered Janelle Monae’s 2015 protest song “Hell You Talmbout.” The percussion-only performance featured a call-and-response list of names of African-Americans who were killed by law enforcement or were victims of racial violence. It was a passionate, raw end to a show that felt genteel and a little bit safe up until that point. Rather than choose another Talking Heads song to finish off the performance, Byrne ended the night on a brave, if not uplifting note. The joyous noise sent us off into the night, the haunting recitation of names still lingering as we passed by the merch table and the people in the lobby registering others to vote.

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