Live Music + Gig Reviews

David Byrne @ Royal Festival Hall, London

8 April 2004

David Byrne The collaboration with London’s own X-Press 2 may have given David Byrne his biggest ever hit, but do not be mistaken. Lazy, he ain’t. Having completed enough solo albums now to outnumber the studio output of Talking Heads, Byrne has had plenty of other projects to keep him from malingering.

The last few years have seen Byrne put his name to a number of multi-media books, create a record label (Luaka-Bop), compose the score to the film Young Adam, as well as producing a track for Stephen Frears’ Dirty Pretty Things. Also, late spring 2004 sees Byrne among the artists contributing to the Ssssh…Sounds In Space audio/visual exhibition at the V & A Museum. And tonight, London is host to Byrne’s My Backwards Life tour.

The Royal Festival Hall sure ain’t no Mudd Club. Or CBGBs for that matter. But then, the Talking Heads of yore wasted no time moving beyond the limited scope of their NYC punk beginnings by expanding into all-encompassing funk that left much of their contemporaries behind. However it’s been 16 years since the band last got in a studio together (for the much underrated Naked). Since the acrimonious partings, Byrne has immersed himself further and further into a global pop, yet has always managed to sound exactly like… David Byrne.

The shock-white of the Byrne barnet is in sharp contrast to the functional brown of his outfit – giving Byrne the look of a trim, middle-aged delivery man in the employ of the United Parcel Service. And though the mane may be silvery, the man himself still moves like a jittery teenager at his first disco. With the all-conquering Lazy a recent memory, it should be of little surprise that Byrne has a jerky spring in his step.

No doubt the universal thumbs-up given to Byrne’s collaboration will be a timely boost to the sales of Byrne’s new record Grown Backwards, not to mention the release of a shelf-worryingly ample Talking Heads box-set. Bolstered by two polyrhythmic drummers and the elegant shading of the Tosca Strings, Byrne is ready to do promo justice to both, not to mention a few little Byrne side-projects that we may have forgotten about. So it is that Byrne and his band of imaginative players dip into Byrne’s ballet-score The Catherine Wheel from the early ’80s and Glass, Concrete And Stone from that Dirty Pretty Things soundtrack.

From then on, the David Byrne show demonstrates no fear of music. Byrne has spent much of his career dipping into something approaching a surfeit of sounds and influences, having used everything from the New York’s tightest Latin musicians through to Brazilian boppers, and there are allusions to all. The presence of the string sextet shower Un Di Felice, Eterea in a peculiarly graceful urgency, and the band add further flesh and bone to I Zimbra, and a Balearic lustre to Road To Nowhere.

But though the band may shape-shift between styles, the hardy perennials of Byrne’s ever-increasing circles of oblique observation remains firmly in (ahem!) light. A non-sequiter such as, “She might dance in a topless bar, but she only sleeps with me,” (She Only Sleeps) may be couched in the bossa nova, but all the rhythms are slave to Byrne’s bemused perspective. Joe-Normal-at-one-remove concoctions like his version of Lambchop‘s The Man Who Loved Beer and Like Humans Do are such Byrne specialities that they already seem over-familiar, resembling the less audacious ‘Heads works such as those that padded out the Little Creatures and True Stories albums.

There is also something of the dilettante about the solo David Byrne. There are times that Byrne’s moon cow stare looks blank, spilling over into the performance and somehow leaving the nervy and taut Once In A Lifetime lacking an emotional centre. And though I promised myself I’d get through this review without using the “q” word, its apparent that Byrne’s quirkiness may at times be better held in check by some permanent, and equal, fellow travellers. But I guess that this must be the place he always wanted to be.

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