5 Jun 2009: Mann Center for the Performing Arts Philadelphia
A spattering of rain could not keep fans from darting down the Vine Street Expressway and onward, past the Philadelphia Zoo, to see David Byrne and his current ensemble perform at Philadelphia’s baronial, quasi-outdoor Mann Center for the Performing Arts. The crowd—a mix of young and middle aged vagrants—eagerly filtered into the all-wooden venue to be beatified by the immortal art-school dropout and singer of the Talking Heads. Collaborator Brian Eno was not in attendance for the show, though songs that benefited from his deft touch were featured throughout.
Fans reveled as the band launched into first single “Strange Overtones”, off of Byrne and Eno’s fantastic 2008 comeback record, Everything That Happens Will Happen Today. Subsequently, the grayed but nonetheless animated Byrne admitted his Clockwork Orange scholarship: He declared that by the end of the night, he would be speaking in “droog” jive.
The set drew primarily from Byrne/Eno collaborations—a heterogeneous batch of songs from the new record and the trio of Eno-produced Talking Heads records: 1978’s More Songs About Buildings and Food, 1979’s Fear of Music, and the band’s redoubtable masterwork—1980’s Remain in Light. The band also performed a track from the duo’s often overlooked but not forgotten 1981 sampling precursor—My Life In The Bush of Ghosts.
It only took the familiar afro-conga groove and guitar tweets of Fear of Music opener “I Zimbra” to summon Byrne’s dance troupe to the stage. Clad in matching ecclesiastical white-spandex, the troupe thrilled throughout the entire show.
The band proceeded through Everything That Happens Will Happen Today’s “One Fine Day”, with Byrne seated in acoustic-troubadour mode. Remain In Light’s “Houses in Motion” and Everything’s “My Big Nurse” ushered in Byrne’s first curveball of the night—“My Big Hands (Fall Through the Cracks)”—off of Byrne’s 1981 Twyla Tharp commissioned dance project, The Catherine Wheel. Byrne assured the audience that this was not his bid at Broadway gigantism like its more recent progeny—Tharp’s Billy Joel musical Moving Out.
The crowd showed its first signs of lassitude as Byrne and ensemble forged through “Heaven”, and My Life in the Bush of Ghosts’ “Help Me Somebody”. “Crosseyed and Painless” began with a bubbling, ultra-funky bass-line, before transforming into a Santana-esque guitar jam that whipped the frantically dancing audience into shape. The crowd immediately caught its collective breath as the band switched gears and rolled into the still astounding existential alternative radio hit, “Once in a Lifetime”. They instantly lost it again as dancers began clearing the rump-shaking Byrne as he performed the song.
Overall, the show seemed to showcase Byrne’s newly found domestic lilt. The choreography for the Everything That Happens Will Happen Today tracks often suggested middle-age suburban ennui. During the performance of the album’s title track, dancers sat in office chairs, wheeled themselves across the stage, and enacted a Britney Spears’ “Stronger” versus Office Space chair dance of sorts. Byrne and his group literally jogged through “Life During Wartime”, and by this moment I could almost imagine the aging Byrne as a character in a Sim game, taking the obligatory humanoid jog around the neighborhood. I could see him reconvening in the den, watching the 2009 National Hockey League Stanley Cup Finals featuring the Pittsburgh and Detroit. Here are two cities mentioned in “Wartime”, where hockey high jinx currently replaces the past civil insurrection hinted at in the song’s lyrics. Parties and discos abound.
No use shouting requests for the home stretch of this show. The set list, fairly consistent from performance to performance, did not offer any real surprises. Still, Byrne and his ensemble returned for two gratuitous encores. The backup singers shined during More Songs About Buildings and Food’s “Take Me to the River”. During “Houses In Motion” we witnessed some jungle deity-summoning choreography. Next in line were the synchronized electric guitar-swinging dancers carving the air with their headstocks during Fear of Music’s “Air”. The second encore delivered the big pop closer—“Burning Down the House”—performed with the entire ensemble dressed in tutus. Byrne and his entourage left all attending apostles in convivial bliss. Dirty Projectors: Please take notes.