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Friday, February 27, 2009

remain in fear of songs about ghosts today



(Spoiler alert: if you plan to see David Byrne on his current tour, do not read this until after you see the show.)


Earlier tonight I saw David Byrne perform live for the nineteenth time, but this one was even more special than usual. The conceit behind his current tour is that he is playing the 'Songs of David Byrne and Brian Eno'. With only two exceptions, that's exactly what he played: songs from More Songs about Buildings and Food (1978), Fear of Music (1979), Remain in Light (1980), My Life in the Bush of Ghosts (1980), and Everything That Happens Will Happen Today (2008).

Aside from the brand-new songs, tonight's program was the soundtrack of my life, music that I grew up playing and never stopped. A few of the songs, like 'Heaven' and 'Life during Wartime', I had seen DB perform live on previous tours, but most were lifelong favourites of mine that I never expected to hear live. For me, this was as great a concert as I can ever expect to see. The performance was tight, funky, swelling, and smart. One thing it was not was nostalgic. At times, the style of a song or the musicians' movements recalled Talking Heads' live shows of the early 1980's but always in a layered way that combined new ideas with the old.

The band had five pieces: DB on guitar, Paul Frazier on bass, Mauro Refosco on percussion, Graham Hawthorne on drums, and Mark Degli Antoni on keyboards. There were three backup singers: Redray Frazier, Kaïssa, and Jenni Muldaur. And three dancers: Lily Baldwin, Natalie Kuhn, and Steven Reker. Several of the songs were fully choreographed for the dancers and the band. The choreographers were Noémie Lafrance, Annie-B Parsons, and robbinschilds.

Before I get to the setlist, here is the breakdown of where the songs came from.

Talking Heads albums
More Songs about Buildings and Food: 1
Fear of Music: 4
Remain in Light: 5
Speaking in Tongues: 1*

Byrne & Eno albums
My Life in the Bush of Ghosts: 1
Everything That Happens: 7

Byrne albums
The Catherine Wheel: 1*

The asterisks mark the non-Eno songs.


1. Strange Overtones (2008, DB & BE)

This is the catchiest song on the new album thanks to the infectious 'out of fashion' groove that runs through it. The one problem I have with the new album is that I don't agree with some of DB's choices as vocalist, as on this song whose verses he sings almost in a falsetto which suits neither his voice nor the song. Not tonight. Live, he sings the song in a lower, more typical register for him and it sounds great. All through the concert, the new songs, with one exception, hold up very well and outshine their recorded versions.

2. I Zimbra (1979, TH)

The dancers come onstage for the first time. They direct a lot of their attention to the backup singers who enact a scenario of being tempted or lured by the dancers. This is the one song where the choreography seems detached from the song rather than adding to it, but that could be because this is their first number and I did not pick up on the dance themes yet.

3. One Fine Day (2008, DB & BE)

SW and I saw DB perform this song last March at St. Ann's Warehouse with Norah Jones, Damien Rice, and two of the Scissor Sisters doing backup. Really. It's still a gentle-sounding song, although the lyrics could be read more melancholically than they first seem. At this point the crowd was still quite still and sizing up the new songs. That changed very quickly.

4. Help Me Somebody (1980, DB & BE)

This was funky genius on DB's part. The recorded version of this piece on My Life in the Bush of Ghosts consists of found vocals from a radio sermon by Reverend Paul Morton of New Orleans in 1980, over guitars, bass, congas, metal objects, and drums. Live, however, DB does the vocal parts spoken by the preacher, including the shouts. It's very cool. Is there a term for performing found sounds live?

5. Houses in Motion (1980, TH)

The first of many songs tonight from Remain in Light. What was a wailing synthesizer solo on the album is played by DB on guitar. He and the band totally nail it, and the crowd rises to its feet. They will remain there for nearly the rest of the show.

6. My Big Nurse (2008, DB & BE)

This is a great song that everyone should listen to. Bad things happen, good things happen, and after recounting them, the voice of the song says, 'I'm counting all the possibilities / For dancing on this lazy afternoon.' This is at least the fourth DB song with 'big' in the title, after 'My Big Hands (Fall through the Cracks)', 'Big Business', and 'Big Blue Plymouth (Eyes Wide Open)' although none of those were produced or co-written by Eno. Even so, keep it in mind. The song is played with three acoustic guitars added by Mauro the percussionist, one of the backup singers, and one of the dancers. The two other dancers move lazily, as the chorus instructs. The song sounds lovely and gentle live.

7. My Big Hands (Fall through the Cracks) (1981, DB)

I am very happy to hear this particular non-Eno song from The Catherine Wheel. Was it included just because it has the word 'big' in the title? That's a good enough reason for me. DB's vocals and the arrangement sound like they are based not on the 1981 recording but on Talking Heads' live version of the song from the Montreux Jazz Festival in 1982, which still circulates as a bootleg. Hearing the song in this alternative form is an unexpected delight.

8. Heaven (1979, TH)

This is a song SW and I have heard DB and even Jarvis Cocker do live before. In tonight's rendition, the keyboard sounds more like a piano to me that it has in any other version I know. Ah, someone should arrange this song with a piano in the lead or perhaps for piano only. That would totally reimagine the song.

9. Poor Boy (2008, DB & BE)

This dark song may be about a country that is about to reap what it has sown. My favourite line: 'They trust market forces. / It’s the only song they know.' Live, the percussion does a lot more work than on the album and DB busts out the tremolo arm in a very rocking guitar solo. In this arrangement, the song sounds like it came from the Remain in Light sessions.

10. Life Is Long (2008, DB & BE)

This new song is full of ambivalence about relationships: 'Chain me down, but I am still free.' The dancers perform in wheeled chairs. Live, it sounds a little flat and slow, which makes it the only new song that suffers in concert.

11. Crosseyed and Painless (1980, TH)

Another favourite from Remain in Light. I am ecstatic just to be hearing it live. They begin with the misleadingly easygoing prologue that one hears on the Stop Making Sense version of the song. Then it kicks into overdrive. This is one of the all-time great songs for backup singers. DB rocks it on guitar.

12. Born Under Punches (The Heat Goes On) (1980, TH)

Another great song from Remain in Light. As with the previous song, the audience is emphatically into it and grateful. I judge from people's responses that they share my delight that these amazing songs are being played live again. The many live recordings of these songs, bootleg and otherwise, from the early 1980's are so tantalizing because Talking Heads were the best band in the world at the time and these songs beg to be played live. Finally!

13. Once in a Lifetime (1980, TH)

At this point I'm beside myself with joy. DB has played this song live before, most recently on his 2004 tour, but this band came ready to play songs from Remain in Light in all their funked-up glory and they do.

14. Life during Wartime (1979, TH)

One great song after another. I made a note to myself which I will have to clarify when I see the show again tomorrow night. I think there was an interesting electronic buzz-like sound on the fourth beat during the choruses. Whatever the case, it was good to hear a song from Fear of Music, which has been nelgected for over an hour. And what about More Songs about Buildings and Food? This was the point in the concert where I started to run through the many, many songs still not played that might be played. Anyone who attends a concert by someone whose career spans more than a decade enjoys doing this in the last third of a show. You know what I'm talking about.

15. I Feel My Stuff (2008, DB & BE)

I have yet to work out a reading of this troubling song from the new album. The opening verses of this song are the only time tonight when DB resorts to the higher vocal register heard on the album. Despite that, the live performance communicates the anxiety of the recording and then some.

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Encore no. 1

16. Take Me to the River (1978, TH)

This is the only song of the night from More Songs. The backup singers got down low at one point, both vocally and physically. Why neglect this great album? Maybe because it's the Talking Heads/Eno album that emphasizes their art-school days over their funked-up sound. Just a guess. Favouring Remain in Light over More Songs gives one impression about DB's early years; programming the concert the other way would create another. And also, it is an Al Green song. Hmm.

17. The Great Curve (1980, TH)

Wow. A fifth song from Remain in Light. This is too good to be true. There are still three songs left on the album, but they probably would not work at this frenetic point in the concert. Paul Frazier's bass is more up front than was Tina's on the album. DB's guitar is loud and screeching. This is an ecstatic performance in the way that only funk and religion can produce, i.e. 'Of the nature of trance, catalepsy, mystical absorption, stupor, or frenzy'. (OED)

--------------
Encore no. 2

18. Air (1979, TH)

'Hit me in the face!' Another great song from Fear of Music. This song soared, particularly at the choruses when he draws out the word 'Air'. The guitar playing is tight and percussive [is that the word I want?], and then DB nails the solo as on the album.

19.Burning Down the House (1983, TH)

The lights were not down long, but the band now appears with white ballet tutus. Menacing, angry sounds are heard. I have no idea what song the band is heading into. My first thought was 'Swamp', so I was not totally off. Mid-song, about thirty young dancers in tutus joined the band onstage and everyone formed a kickline. Why? Presumably because this was Radio City, home of the Rockettes. That probably sounds silly, but everyone enjoyed it, including me. As great as the performance of the song was, I remember the dancers more. It was quite a sight.

--------------
Encore no. 3

20. Everything That Happens (2008, DB & BE)

The title track from the new album and a fitting finale. The song sounds beautiful and, again, DB sings it better live than on the record, with a lot more confidence and more emotional commitment. This is a song you have to sing like you mean it:
'I ride on a perfect freeway,
Many people on that road.
I heard the sound of someone laughing.
I saw my neighbors car explode.
Just up ahead,
Against the sky,
Quicker than you blink your eye.
Like 'My Big Nurse', the song acknowledges suffering and loss and then reminds us that there is more to this strange life:
'Oh my brother, I still wonder, are you alright?
And among the living, we are giving, all through the night.

[...]

Everything that happens will happen today,
And nothing has changed, but nothing’s the same.'
--------------

The concert's choreography was unlike anything I have seen at a concert of popular music. It was athletic and modern, for one thing. When I think of concerts where dancers interact with the band, I think of unfortunate clips I have seen on cable television of Janet Jackson or Britney Spears. That kind of pop-music dancing tends to be brain-dead, as if all anyone could think to do was re-enact the literal content of the lyrics. Here, the choreography was chasing ideas, not words. They were trying to embody the spirit of the songs in the present. There were a couple of clever moments where the moves mimicked the past, as when everyone on stage did that running-in-place motion seen in Stop Making Sense. Other than those few moments, this was a fresh reading of the music in dance form.

What a great concert. I can't wait to see it again tomorrow night.

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5 Comments:

Anonymous sw said...

I can vouch for everything that Jeff says - or almost everything. It was a splendid gig, and I look forward to hearing how it compares to tonight's.

I was a little bit unsure about the three dancers; on the spectrum of modern whimsical dance, which spans from Mark Morris (Good) to Pina Bausch (Evil), they occupied a fairly neutral position. Overall, though, I found myself enjoying them, even if I was usually relieved when my attention was drawn back to Byrne, his band, and the music.

Since Jeff mentions the audience, and since we're dropping terpsichorean science here, I would offer this up as an unverifiable observation: Byrne's audience seems to attract a noticeably large number of men and women who are awful dancers. Not that Radio City Music Hall offers much in the way of room for wrigglin' and booty-shakin', but still ... Jeff, any thoughts on this?

8:58 PM, February 28, 2009

 
Blogger Jeff Strabone said...

The dancers worked for me as an accessory to the concert. There's no question that we were not seeing a dance performance at BAM or the Joyce. It was fun and added to the performance of the music. That was all it needed to be.

As for the dancers in the audience, SW is right. It surprises me that people who have been listening to Remain in Light for the past twenty-nine years still have no groove.

11:02 PM, February 28, 2009

 
Anonymous 42 said...

Great review. However,as a person who has been a huge fan of the music of Mr. Byrne, especially when he was with the Talking Heads, for over 30 years, I take umbrage with the statement that we have "no groove". The body just does not go where we want it to go any more.

It must a been been a helluva show. I wish I had been there.

12:59 PM, March 01, 2009

 
Blogger Jeff Strabone said...

To the untrained eye, there is little difference.

1:58 PM, March 01, 2009

 
Blogger Daniel F said...

Having seen the concert last night, the second of two shows at the Festival Hall in London, I am finally able to enjoy your blog.

I am still rather overwhelmed by the event, particularly as my girlfriend and I took part in a stage rush that happened during Crosseyed and Painless, which resulted in us watching the climax of the main set and the encores from under DB's very handsome nose.

The selections were almost the same as the night you saw, save that I believe the Catherine Wheel song was replaced by a track from the ETHWHT bonus disc.

To go back to the opening of the show for a moment, after Byrne came on with his band, he chatted affably into the mike for some minutes before a note of music was played. He mentioned the gaps in the repertoire he would be playing at the show. "There's the songs that I did with Brian and, uh, other musicians back in the day, then there's, uh, a gap, then there's the present, and then there's another gap, which is the, uh, future."

Eno watched proceedings from the royal box, and surprisingly and very movingly given his detestation of performing live, he came on at the very end of the show to sing the last chorus of Everything that Happens with a jubilant Byrne.

7:48 AM, April 14, 2009

 

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