Friday, April 17, 2009

Everyone Will Leave At Exactly The Same Time

David Byrne, Royal Festival Hall

David Byrne is basically your favourite funky uncle. In a very cool artrock band in his younger days, when you were just a nipper, he now seems to potter around some swish and bohemian part of New York's West Side doing effortlessly interesting things - travelling the world, writing film soundtracks, designing bizarre bike racks. You hardly ever see him, but when you do its always a pleasure and he's always brought some quirky and original present for you.

This year he's brought a band dressed all in white - to match his hair, I suppose - and a setlist culled from his collaborations with Brian Eno; the second to the fourth Talking Heads' albums, 1981's brilliant and groundbreaking My Life in the Bush of Ghosts and their new effort, Everything That Happens Will Happen Today - whatever the hell that means - whose vocal parts and instrumentals pinged across the Atlantic between the two auteur's emails until it was finished. The band - drums, bass, keyboards, Byrne on guitar, a percussionist with practically a village of things to bang and rattle - were accompanied by three dancers, who pirouetted and sashayed across the stage in a dreadfully modern manner, including an expressive episode with some office chairs, a lot of frolicking hither and tither, before at one point the male dancer vaulted over Byrne's head.

Of course you know that Byrne is not bringing the usual rock gig trappings - for a start he's playing the rarefied Royal Festival Hall among other rather well-to-do venues on the UK leg - secondly he chats amiably and unpretentiously to the crowd at several points. "If you want to take photos on your pocket cameras, feel free," he told us joshily, "but you in the balcony, bear in mind that your flash may not reach all the way down to the stage." Some of what he told us was interesting: when introducing MLITBOG's Help Me Somebody he mentioned that the album used a lot of were then known as "found vocals", which later became known as samples.

The setlist leans towards the new material at the beginning, but with I Zimbra as the second tune, Talking Heads material is never far away. For the first half-hour it seems very amiable, although a little restrained; the crowd sit back on their well-holstered seats and enjoy the spectacle, but roundabout when Crosseyed and Painless gets underway, played at a fair clip, the crowd suddenly surges towards the front and the stalls get the party underway, although for us trapped on the balcony, it doesn't work out quite as well. A brief sojourn to try and get into the stalls didn't come off either.

The music is of course given superb treatment and its great to see him in such great voice. However, there seems to be little wavering from the canon. The songs were all played exactly to the letter, and while the band knocks out the edgy-funk with supreme finesse, they never seem to settle into the grooves, preferring to cap the songs at the same length as on record. This seems to me to be a bit of waste, because no matter how funky a rhythm is, if you can't lose yourself in it, it aint funky enough. Most especially, there are no segues; each song stands on its own, the band takes a bit of applause before striking up the next one. This slightly uptight element is definitely in keeping with Byrne's generally slightly uptight demeanour, as is his jerky dance style, the snakelike fits and pounces, preserved from the Talking Heads days, if a bit softened round the edges. And he does wiggle his bum at the audience as well.

But the band, and the tunes, or at least the old ones, are fucking funky. The new material, like most of Byrne's stuff post- more or less Stop Making Sense, is cheerful and bright. A cynic might imagine that in about 1986 Byrne gave up cocaine for religion, but what do I know. Somehow the chirpy stuff, nice as it is, never reaches the heights (or depths) of the old gear. For instance a tune like Heaven, which gets an airing, as slow, beautiful and major chord laden as any of the new stuff, somehow manages to avoid the slightly anodyne, inconsequential, daytime radio feel of his more recent offerings.

The encores, including Take Me To The River and a the non-Eno but seemingly inevitable Burning Down The House (with DB in a tutu), wrapped up a strong and welcome performance by an art-rock legend. But while the RFH acoustics meant the sound was crystal clear, I'd still swap that overcomfortable venue for a shoddier sound in a smaller, sweatier hall. Those in the stalls no doubt got a fair bit more out of it that I did, the lucky conts.

These two have more details and some nice photos, but anyone who says that it was better than the Stop Making Sense gig must be crazy.