Review: David Byrne @ Wolf Trap

It shouldn’t be a surprise considering the tour is billed as The Songs of David Byrne and Brian Eno – the former Roxy Music mastermind produced the three Talking Heads albums from 1978 to 1980. It’s in support of Byrne and Eno’s 2008 stellar surprise of an album, Everything That Happens Will Happen Today. This gives Byrne a vast cannon to pull from, or menu, as he put it while introducing the show: “I’ll be your waiter for the evening. My Name’s Dave,” he added, in his typical deadpan.

As Byrne proved throughout the night, Everything That Happens Will Happen Today is worthy of inclusion in said menu, maybe Byrne’s best work since Talking Heads’ final album, Naked. It’s the first joint collaboration for the pair since 1981’s My Life in the Bush of Ghosts — the seminal experimental album that’s credited with introducing the world to sampling — from which Byrne played a pair of selections. From the opening notes of Strange Overtones, the album’s standout track, Byrne had the crowd — only some of whom seemed familiar with the album — intently listening. He got them intently watching with Fear of Music opener I Zimbra, when his backup dancers emerged and the choreography began.

More than just a concert, Byrne’s current show is dance theatre project — nearly as ambitious as Stop Making Sense for its highly stylized concept and complex choreography. With everyone on stage dressed in all white, the three dancers shift in and out of view, offering interpretive dance flashes with Byrne and his three background singers often joining in. At one point during I Zimbra, two dancers held microphones to two singers as they laid down on the stage. It might seem odd at first — so much flash for such a musically tight show — but the dancing adds an element of intrigue and fascination you don’t get from your average rock concert. These aren’t your standard concert dancers either, everyone moves with a style and grace more attune to a professional dance troupe, than a rock show. When Byrne got into the act, it was just confirmation of why he’s one of the greatest performers in rock and roll history. His energy is unparalleled; his enthusiasm immense; and his moves are still sharp.

This band he’s put together can play too, with only Heaven sounding a bit more up-tempo than its Talking Heads counterpart. On the Bush of Ghosts songs — Help Me Somebody and Moonlight in Glory — Byrne played the part of the preachers he sampled for the tracks, embodying the spirit of the character he was essentially portraying.

On Take Me to the River the backup singers took the spotlight, owning the stage with the song’s call and response. Having now seen both Byrne and Al Green perform the cut at the same venue, I can clearly say, despite Green’s authorship, it’s Byrne who truly owns the song. Perhaps the only soft spot of the entire show was set-closer I Feel My Stuff, from Everything That Happens. The six-minute piece can come off kooky at points, but it’s multiple sections still embody Byrne’s progressive spirit.

One of the highlights — both musically and visually — was Life During Wartime, with Byrne, his singers and his dancers running in place while singing, alluding to his infamous Stop Making Sense performance of the song. Just hearing Byrne shout out: “This ain’t no party/ This ain’t no disco/ This ain’t no fooling around” was a chill-inducing moment.

Byrne’s voice sounds nearly as strong as ever at 57, and he looks fairly youthful too, sans his hair, grayed with age. Having seen the second night of this tour in Baltimore in September, I did notice his voice sounded a bit rougher than I remembered, but it’s to be expected after nine months of near non-stop touring. It was, however, positive to see the set list and choreography has grown a bit since September. Most of what he played at the Lyric Opera House appeared at Wolf Trap, but the repertoire has increased: Fear of Music’s Air and Burning Down the House — one of only two non-Eno contributions performed — were both treats. The latter for some reason featured Byrne, his band and his dancers coming out wearing tu-tus. It was strange but funny, and the spot-on performance rightfully got the crowd’s biggest reaction.

Those two were part of the second of three encores — it seemed tedious to have Byrne fake-exit three times — but at this point in his career David Byrne deserves as many curtain calls as he wants, he’s earned it.

David Byrne
Wolf Trap
Vienna, Va.
June 6, 2009

Set: Strange Overtones, I Zimbra, One Fine Day, Help Me Somebody, Houses in Motion, My Big Nurse, My Big Hands (Fall Through the Cracks), Heaven, Moonlight in Glory, Life is Long, Crosseyed and Painless, Born Under Punches, Once in a Lifetime, Life During Wartime, I Feel My Stuff

Encore 1: Take Me To the River, The Great Curve,
Encore 2: Air, Burning Down the House
Encore 3: Everything That Happens

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One Response

  1. This show was life changing! Houses in Motion was a highlight for me, and the funky intro jam to crosseyed, a la stop making sense.

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