Live Review: David Byrne, Benaroya Hall 2/18

photos by Kyle Johnson
review by Jim Beckmann

To the deafening applause that greeted him as soon as he stepped on stage, David Byrne told the sold-out crowd in the S. Mark Taper Auditorium at Benaroya Hall, “I got what I wanted. I’m going home now.” To be honest, he probably could have gotten away with it too. The audience seemed happy enough with his mere presence to rise in unison before he played a single note. But thankfully he did stay, and that was to be the first of many standing ovations he received during the night.

The current tour, billed as “Songs of David Byrne and Brian Eno,” though notedly without Eno, is supporting the pair’s recent release Everything That Happens Will Happen Today, their first collaboration since My Life In The Bush Of Ghosts nearly 30 years ago. By the second song of the set, though, when the band broke into the funky 1979 Talking Heads classic “I Zimbra,” it was clear that we’d be hearing plenty of the great music Byrne had been making before and between those years and without Eno. New songs like “Strange Overtones,” “One Fine Day” and “Poor Boy” were straddled by Heads best of’s like “Crosseyed and Painless,” “Life During Wartime” and “Take Me to the River.” Only one previous Byrne/Eno composition (“Help Me Somebody”) was performed and no solo tunes were to be found at all. But the audience dancing in the aisles were getting what they wanted and could have cared less.

On stage, Byrne was joined by four musicians (longtime drummer and bassist Graham Hawthorne and Paul Frazier respectively, Forro in the Dark percussionist Mauro Refosco, and former Soul Coughing keyboardist Mark Degliantoni), three backup vocalists (Jenni Muldaur, Cameroonian singer Kaïssa, and Redray Frazier, the brother of bassist Paul), and three dancers (Lily Baldwin, Natalie Kuhn, and Steven Reker). The large cast, though, hardly felt like overkill and the interaction between all members was a delight watch.

Throughout the set, the members’ roles were constantly being revised: singers would strap on guitars, dancers would hold and move mic stands and even cue the musicians, and the musicians themselves participated in their own choreography. What could have felt scripted and stifling was loosened by a group of choreographers and “movement artists”: Annie-B Parson, Noémie LaFrance, and Leyla Robbins with Sonya Childs (aka robbinschilds). Whether the three dancers on stage where stuck in a moment of doll-like automatism or nearly losing control to the childlike absurdity of a movement, they always seemed to be having fun, constantly grinning to each other and the audience, and even at one point slapping the butt of bassist Paul Frazier. When dancer Steven Reker leapfrogged a guitar-playing David Byrne, the crowd nearly exploded.

At the center of it all was David Byrne himself, dressed like the rest of the cast in all white, with his now nearly all white hair and old-man suspenders. Despite his obviously advancing age, he moved like he always did, with the same practiced awkwardness he made popular in Stop Making Sense, but like the song goes, it felt like he was “moving twice as much as [he] was before.” Vocally, he also seemed at the top of his game, which is to say “same as it ever was,” and the astounding acoustics of Benaroya Hall only help carry his melodies further and more clearly. There wasn’t a moment I believed that we were all just trying to relive the late 70’s. The night was a time unto itself.

But of I were to make any criticism at all of what surely will be one of the best concerts I’ll see all year, I would suggest that maybe three encores is one too many. While I certainly appreciate the total number of songs performed, the casts’ lining up before each one verged on appearing self-congratulatory. Yet if anyone’s deserving heaps of it, David Byrne and his crew certainly are. Also, it seemed that overall the Talking Heads material outweighed the Byrne/Eno collaborations, but on reflection I noticed that they did play most of the new album and I was probably just hoping to hear “Home,” one of the highlights of Everything That Happens… and one that they skipped while in Seattle. Oh well. These are really minor complaints of an awesome performance. And I wouldn’t have given up a thing and miss the entire cast performing “Burning Down The House” in dresses and tutus.

video by linsle

If you get a chance to see David Byrne on this tour, don’t miss out! He’ll be in Clagary tonight (2/23) and at Radio City Music Hall in New York at the end of the week. Rumor has it, after his Spring European tour, he’ll be back in Seattle. Look out for it!

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