What a difference 30 years makes.
Back in 1978, the Talking Heads were playing clubs that barely had functioning toilets and drew small crowds to hear their progressively styled poly rhythms.Â Flash forward to 2008, and the Talking Heads are no more, but David Byrne is, and the music he created with his band and producer Brian Eno has gone uptown.Â Byrne played at the swanky Davies Symphony Hall in San Francisco to a sold-out crowd on Monday, and it was clear the moment he took the stage that he was expecting the audience to be a bit more sedate. However, the crowd was in no mood to politely sit in their seats — they gave Byrne a standing ovation at the outset, and then began to crowd the outer edges of the hall to dance feverishly for the next two hours.
The opening song, “Strange Overtones,” was a mid-tempo number from his new collaboration with Brian Eno, Everything That Happens Will Happen Today, and it got some heads nodding and bodies swaying in their seats.Â A couple of women in the front row did a kind of hippy-dippy/body and hands undulating dance — only to be told by an usher to sit down or move to the side of the hall.Â This was, after all, Davies Symphony Hall, and dancing in front of high-paying patrons was bad form.Â Ha!
When Byrne and the band launched into a pitch-perfect version of “I Zimbra” from Fear of Music, the guardians of the upper-class venue had clearly lost the war, as the crowd was mesmerized (and then frenzied) by the on-stage tightness of the band and the addition of three dancers — who pushed the energy level through the roof.Â Indeed after “I Zimbra” (which also got a standing ovation), Byrne brought the crowd back to earth with “One Fine Day,” and then slowly pushed them into the stratosphere with “Help Me Somebody” (from My Life in the Bush of Ghosts), “Houses in Motion,” “My Big Hands,” and Heaven.”
It was Byrne’s careful and skilled mixing of old, new, familiar, and deep cuts from his solo and Talking Heads catalog that made the concert a tasteful retrospective, and not merely a money-grab “greatest hits” tour.Â Hearing the old Talking Heads songs next to Byrne’s new songs demonstrates he’s made peace with his Talking Heads past he seemed to be running away from.Â Indeed, from the look on his face when the audience exploded in approval after each song — and the five-minute standing ovation after the initial set — I think it finally occurred to Byrne how much his Talking Heads music has meant to people.Â At the end of the set, he was just stunned at the love he was getting from the audience, and he looked unsure of how to top “The Great Curve.”Â But he’s a man of surprises, and boy did the audience get one.
Byrne introduced the Extra Action Marching Band who took the stage for a couple of songs — complete with cross-dressing cheerleaders and shirtless male flag wavers.Â After their two song set of musical Red Bull, Byrne and his band took the stage and performed an amazing version of “Burning Down the House” with Extra Action.Â It was the perfect ending to an amazing show.
If you either missed seeing the Talking Heads live in their heyday (as I did), or have been tepidly interested in David Byrne’s solo output, you should not miss this tour. The band is tight, the dancing that supplements many of the songs is imaginative, and Byrne is clearly having a great time performing songs that brought his particular brand of art rock into the mainstream.
David Byrne: Voice/guitar
Mark Degli Antoni: Keys
Paul Frazier: Bass
Mauro Refosco: Percussion
Graham Hawthorne: Drums