Every long-lived pop musician who achieves success as a young artist eventually confronts the legacy problem: How much of your back catalogue do you take with you when you hit the road to promote your new music? David Byrne, who never actually spoke the name of the great little band he fronted back in the seventies and eighties during his gig at Wolf Trap Saturday night, has hit upon a more elegant solution than most. Last year, he and Roxy Music keyboardist turned professional egghead Brian Eno made Everything That Happens Will Happen Today, a sterling collection of modern country and gospel songs (that sound nothing like country or gospel songs), marking their first collaboration in 27 years. Byrne has thus devoted his current roadshow, which kicked off last fall, to the songs of Byrne and Eno.*
This gives him a cohesive framework in which to present the new(ish) stuff, pieces from their 1981 sampling-before-it-had-a-name collaboration My Life in the Bush of Ghosts, and yes, tracks from that classic trio of Talking Heads albums — More Songs About Buildings and Food, Fear of Music, and Remain in Light that Eno produced between 1978 and 1980. In other words, the crowd gets to hear the old hits but Byrne doesn’t have to feel like a washed-up nostalgia act. It’s win-win, Baby!
That sounds cynical, but in actuality the Wolf Trap date was an inventive, joyous, irony-free ode to finding — nay, noticing — the moments of poetry that pop up in our mostly prosaic lives.
“This groove is out of fashion” Byrne crooned in the buoyant opener, “Strange Overtones.” “These beats are 20 years old.” Older than that, in the case of Talking Heads classics like “Life During Wartime” and the euphoric “Once in a Lifetime.” But who’s counting? Not Byrne, whose old band is one of the last 80s arena-fillers to resist the call for a big-money reunion tour. Now 57, he's grown into a richer, more expressive singer than he was in his ostensible prime.
Much of the show’s abundant warmth was a built-in feature of the music. Byrne and Eno have made a record that pulls off the hat trick of expressing uncertainty while feeling deeply soulful. Maybe it was the Talking Heads songs that filled all those seats , and then pulled all those asses right out of them (Yes! At Wolf Trap!), but the new music formed a context that kept the old from feeling rote.
Plus, the less familiar numbers were at least as good as the obligatories: “Help Me Somebody,” from Bush of Ghosts, was thrillingly recreated with Byrne performing the apoplectic-preacher found-vocal from the original recording. Explaining that he and Eno assembled the studio original via sampling in the analog era, Byrne said, “We won’t get into the pros and cons of that this evening. But we won’t be using any samplers. I’ll be the sampler.” Suck it, Girl Talk!
“My Big Hands (Fall Through the Cracks)” was another curio, this one from Twyla Tharp’s short-lived Broadway dance revue The Catherine Wheel.
So there was plenty of exotic music to keep things fresh, but the staging was marvelous, too. Rather then rely on pyrotechnics or high-def video balls, Byrne composed striking stage-pictures by dressing his eight-piece band all in white and hiring three choreographers to enhance the music with movement. Dancers Lily Baldwin, Natalie Kuhn, and Steven Reker were vital components of the show, illuminating nearly every number.
Unlike the moves at, say, an Usher show, their routines were deliberately not executed in lockstep, but rather attuned to the variances among each dancer’s body. And while most pop dancing expresses lust and nothing but — not that there’s anything wrong with that! — to see dancers express other, more complex emotions like joy, fear, surprise, and even boredom was fascinating.
Better still, no one onstage was a specialist. The three backing singers danced, the three dancers strummed guitars, and even Byrne joined in to shake his art-school tail feather as both prop and participant. The dancing was loose-limbed and joyous, rehearsed but not so rigid as to smother spontaneity. You could see the dancers encouraging the singers to attempt ever bolder moves, and smiling approvingly when they pulled them off.
Byrne made minor variations to the 20-song setlist from last pass through town, dropping two of the new songs in favor of the Heads album cut “Born Under Punches” and "Moonlight in Glory," a second oddity from Bush of Ghosts. One might’ve hoped for a bit more change-up, but the sheer exuberance of the performance negated any question of over-familiarity. “Every tomorrow will be yesterday,” goes the chorus of the new album’s title track, which closed the show on an elegiac note. A tomorrow like last Saturday night at Wolf Trap is something to anticipate.
With the crowd-pleasing exception “Burning Down the House,” which comes from 1983’s non-Eno Speaking in Tongues. The audience did not appear to mind that Byrne violated his own premise for the show, which he had patiently explained to them before he played a note.
David Byrne at Wolf Trap's Filene Center, Saturday, June 6, 2009
01 Strange Overtones 02 I Zimbra 03 One Fine Day 04 Help Me, Somebody 05 Houses in Motion 06 My Big Nurse 07 My Big Hands (Fall Through the Cracks) 08 Heaven 09 Moonlight in Glory 10 Life Is Long 11 Crosseyed and Painless 12 Born Under Punches (The Heat Goes On) 13 Once in a Lifetime 14 Life During Wartime 15 I Feel My Stuff
16 Take Me to the River 17 The Great Curve
18 Air 19 Burning Down the House
20 Everything That Happens