I’ve reviewed a fair few concerts and CDs over the years, but this was one of the standout gigs – game-changing.
It’s been a few weeks since I saw David Byrne and band in concert and while I initially didn’t think I’d review it – it was so game-changing for me in the end I decided I had to. Simply to go on the record.
Why didn’t I initially pen a review? Two reasons: flat out at work (where the writing load is high a ce moment), but more importantly I wasn’t that familiar with his new music – and wasn’t sure I could do an honest job in appraising how he delivered it. That turns out to be an academic consideration. But bring it on Ron…what was the concert like?
In a word, revolutionary. Over half a century I’ve caught a lot of acts, mostly rock and pop bands. They pack the stage more or less with a generally untidy sprawl of kit, one or two sets of drums/percussion layouts up back and mike stands with guitarists, singers up front, maybe a keyboards player (or two) to the side and some brass players or a wee string section rearwards as well.
The big stadium acts throw in some pizzazz perhaps with video rolling behind, smoke and lights, maybe some weird stuff (Roger Waters’ pig for example) floating round. Trapeze work (Pink, Gaga etc), costuming…all reasonably grand and predictable.
Then you have David Byrne and his band. Twelve of them (including Dave). Opening act at Spark, Kimbra brings two accompanists with keys and guitar – a mountain of kit by contrast with Byrne’s band. They are like a marching band; not a cable in sight. The drumkit and percussion stuff (maracas, congas etc) is shared out among six players who wear their bit of the kit on a harness unless they’re holding it. Two guitarists with wireless instruments and a keyboards player with his deck slung over his shoulders like the drummers fill out the instrumentalists; then there are two dancers who sing backup vocals, and Byrne (who plays guitar occasionally).
Did I say marching band? That’s the next remarkable thing about this ensemble: they are choreographed for the entire show – on the move on and off stage constantly. They criss-cross, circle, step back and forwards and dance, dance, dance the entire time (unless they’re offstage).
Visually, it’s riveting – you can’t take your eyes off the spectacle for a moment – in case you miss something. This is an astonishing feat. They are playing and moving with nary a break for two hours, with not a hiccup that I could see. Like schools of fish underwater or birds in the sky in formation – amazing synchronisation.
Byrne adds his usual eclectic touches: they’re all in matching grey suits and tee-shirts, and barefoot. By the end the male dancer’s tee is black not grey – drenched.
There are plenty of acts around I’m sure capable of the same choreography – but I can’t recall a playing band doing it. When I say game-changing I mean this takes going to a rock concert to a new level – you’re there to hear the music you know and love, but they add this sumptuous visual performing layer that lifts the event into a new place.
The stage itself merits a mention: the sides and back feature maybe 10m silver streamers hanging down, like a waterfall or an upmarket version of a fish-and-chip-shop flyscreen door. The musos move in an out of the shimmering screen like wraiths; at one stage their hands with the instruments are on stage, their bodies not…very cool.
OK, what about the music Murray? And that’s the other word I’d use – faultless.
Byrne is probably best known for his Talking Heads hits and fans got a thoroughly satisfying selection with Slippery People, This must be the place, Once in a lifetime, Born under punches, Burning down the house, Road to nowhere, and The great curve. No Psycho Killer, which was odd, but then he did perform that at his St James concert in 2005 – and not Burning down the house. There will always be a quibble over what doesn’t get played but Psycho is a defining Byrne number (if by his own admission not a particularly cerebral piece…)
The balance of the songs were drawn from solo and more recent albums. The opener Here was an odd number: the lights come up on a stage with just a table and chair and an object on the table which turns out to be a plastic brain. Byrne takes it and does a bit of a Hamlet thing; kinda weird but this is David Byrne whose final encore at the St James gig was a Verdi aria. This time the last song was a Jonelle Monae cover Hell you talmbout, a song basically comprising the names of African-Americans killed in racial violence (often by the police) in the US in recent times. A protest song.
There wasn’t a down note in the whole gig to be honest and the whole concert with its continuous movement thing pulsed and rocked throughout. Byrne drew attention to the presence of three Brazilians in the band and as my colleague pointed out you could feel a samba vibe in a lot of places.
There has obviously been some doubt cast on the authenticity of the sound – it is so good, surely, some pundits were saying, there’s a bit of off-stage fabrication going on? Not so, says Byrne who then built Born under punches from scratch, instrument by instrument. And the sound was very good, faithfully reproducing that inimitable Talking Heads funkiness and quirkiness.
A word too on the two dancers. Immaculate. They danced and moved in unison and were a small sub-show in their own right, and gave Byrne the vocal backup he needed. As for the man himself, he was just a guy on top of his trade whether singing, playing guitar, moving. A genius really. His patter was disarmingly humble and deferential to a very supportive audience. He lets the music speak.
If this concert or footage from the overall (140+ gig) tour ever hits the music stores as a DVD, I’ll buy it. History in the making, I reckon.
Setlist: Here, Lazy, I Zimbra, Slippery people, I should watch TV, Dog’s mind, Everbody’s coming to my house, This must be the place (naïve melody), Once in a lifetime, Doing the right thing, Toe jam, Born under punches, I dance like this, Bullet, Every day is a miracle, Like humans do, Blind, Burning down the house; encores – Road to nowhere, The great curve, Hell you talmbout.