Still making sense

When David Byrne took to the stage to greet the crowd in Brooklyn last night, he was accompanied by an unusual accessory. Not a guitar, nor even a tape recorder containing a drum machine backing track of “Psycho Killer”. Instead, the former Talking Head wheeled out a white bicycle, which had apparently been designed to match his outfit (and hair). While many of the 27,000 who’d crammed into Prospect Park had taken the subway to attend the free concert, Byrne, now 57, explained how he’d simply ridden his bike across the river. It was a typically quirky introduction to the evening from a man who in recent years has become as active in his advocacy of two-wheel travel as in making music. He even designed a series of bike racks which are dotted around New York City.

Things didn’t get any less predictably unexpected once the music started. The set was billed as focusing solely on Byrne’s long-term, on-off-on again collaborations with Brian Eno, who produced a trio of early Talking Heads albums: More Songs About Buildings and Food (1978), Fear of Music (1979) and Remain In Light (1980). In 1981 Byrne and Eno made the experimental record My Life in The Bush of Ghosts, their last project until last year’s Everything That Happens Will Happen Today, from which the evening’s opening number was plucked. Unfortunately, the song, “Strange Overtures”, is lost amid a half-baked sound which struggles to generate much interest. Initially disturbed, I can only assume that this was a technical hitch, as shortly afterwards the pulsating Afro-beats and Dadaist chants of “I Zimbra” float effortlessly into the warm air, setting the tone for the rest of the evening.

Though often inaccurately bunched together with punk and post-punk acts due to regular appearances at the same venues, Talking Heads were really a no-wave group, whose interest (in the early days at least) lay firmly in the underground cultures of avant-garde art and New York’s club scene. Combine this with Byrne’s obsessive fascination for foreign rhythms, stream-of-consciousness lyrics and quizzical observations about the rest of the country, and one has arguably the quintessential New York baby-boomer band: wordy, witty, worldly, but not afraid to shut up and get down when the music takes them. The band’s distinctive sound seems to have been spawned by the city’s streets on a hot July day, when Manhattan could be mistaken for Calcutta. No song captures the oppressive rhythm of a New York summer like “Born Under Punches (And The Heat Goes On)”, which always sounds like it was written and recorded in a jungle (made of trees or concrete). Tonight the song hangs in the thick air and seems to drip like dew off sticky humid leaves.

This hypnotic track is immediately followed by “Once in a Lifetime”, perhaps Byrne’s best-known composition. The song has gone a long way in helping seal Talking Heads’ position as the most enduring and influential band of the American New Wave and Byrne as rock’s ultimate everyman anti-hero. Lyrically, both this and the next song, “Life During Wartime”, have long-since seeped into the realms public consciousness: “You may find yourself behind the wheel of a large automobile…”, “This ain’t no party, this ain’t no disco…” Almost thirty years after he wrote it, when Byrne asks, “Well, how did I get here?”, I still wonder if he’s figured out an answer.

When I saw Byrne seven years ago on a similar summer evening in Leicester, he was accompanied by a group of young singers he’d met at a high school. Tonight he’s backed by a troupe of hyperactive dancers and gymnasts, whose back-flips and leapfrogs somehow manage not to distract but to enhance the musical experience. For the most part Byrne remains passive to their performance, as if unaware of their presence.

Things slow down for “Heaven”, which Byrne sings with soaring concentration. The careful choreography (even Byrne’s Stratocaster is off-white) is reminiscent of the Stop Making Sense tour, captured so memorably by filmmaker Jonathan Demme in what is still perhaps the greatest concert movie of that decade. That feature leaned heavily on Speaking In Tongues (1983), Talking Heads’ first record produced without Brian Eno since their debut LP in 1977. Likewise tonight’s curated set-list finds no room for the radio-friendly material from later self-produced albums Little Creatures (1985), True Stories (1986) or Naked (1988).

For the encore Byrne is joined on-stage by percussionist Steve Scales, whose inclusion in the expanded Talking Heads band helped define the funky sound of the live albums The Name Of This Band Is Talking Heads (1981) and Stop Making Sense (1984). There’d be no dusting off of the big suit tonight, but nobody questions Byrne when he reappears sporting a white tutu pulled up over his original outfit. “Take Me To The River” is a rare case of a covered song improving on the original, and it belongs as much to Byrne as it does to Al Green now, while “Burning Down The House” always does exactly that. Both songs demonstrate Byrne’s long-standing interest in gospel music and religion-induced performance.

At show’s end David Byrne disciples young and old (this was the most family-friendly concert I have attended) filtered off into the streets and down into the subway, their bodies still jerking to Byrne’s rare brand of spasmodic rhythms. By all accounts Byrne hopped back over the bridge on his bike. I bet he was home before we were.

David Byrne, Prospect Park Bandshell, Brooklyn — June 8, 2009

Strange Overtones
I Zimbra
One Fine Day
Help Me Somebody
Houses In Motion
My Big Nurse
My Big Hands (Fall Through The Cracks)
Moonlight In Glory
Life Is Long
Crosseyed and Painless
Born Under Punches (And The Heat Goes On)
Once In A Lifetime
Life During Wartime
I Feel My Stuff

Encore 1
Take Me To The River
The Great Curve

Encore 2
Burning Down The House

Encore 3
Everything That Happens

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