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David Byrne

(26 Oct 2008: Civic Opera House — Chicago, IL)

It would have been more than sufficient to see David Byrne singing and playing guitar on a stage all by himself. Despite the decades that have passed since his first release, Byrne’s dynamic presence and distinctive voice still shone through as he played a set consisting of songs taken from his long solo career as well as cuts from his albums with Talking Heads. Yet, Bryne exceeded even the greatness of his own presence by including six dancers who performed everything from ballet to acrobatics. They also doubled as backup singers. The choreographed spectacle was almost like watching a long artistic music video or a postmodern ballet with exceptionally good music. This format wasn’t too surprising—especially considering Byrne’s contributions to numerous film scores as well as his work with The Catherine Wheel ballet in the early ‘80s—yet one couldn’t help feeling a sense of awe while witnessing it.


Alongside the dancers/backing singers, Byrne played with a bassist, keyboardist, and two drummers while he demonstrated his own versatile electric guitar playing that utilized varying effects. Throughout the two hour long set, which included three encores, Byrne transformed the onstage space and made it seem like a secondary home. Dressed in pure white with gleaming hair, he looked like a rock angel ready to lead a heavenly choir.


Surely, the audience suspected beforehand that they were perhaps in for such a treat. Byrne has built a solid reputation by being not only a vital artistic talent, but also one who has consistently backed up this reputation by creating pure musical poetry for close to 35 years. Despite the fact that this show had long since been sold out, eager fans were desperately vying outside for any possible extra tickets that someone could sell them. With or without tickets, everyone was expecting an exceptional performance but Byrne exceeded that, playing the venue in a way that didn’t make it feel quite so large or impersonal. Though he kept stage banter to a minimum (preferring only to express his political optimism), Byrne was clearly enjoying himself throughout the show, participating in his own choreographed dance moves, often with his guitar in tow. His coordination, combined with his ability to keep the songs tight, was sheer perfection and pretty impressive to say the least.


It was refreshing to hear new songs from Everything that Happens Will Happen Today, Byrne’s recently released new album written and recorded in collaboration with another musical icon, Brian Eno. “Everything that Happens”, the record’s truncated title track came off particularly vividly with a beautiful sense of seamless time: “Nothing’s changed but nothing is the same / Everything that happens will happen today / Maybe tomorrow will be yesterday.”


As great as the new record is, it was even better to hear older songs, songs which came from every corner of Byrne’s career, even his first Eno collaboration, 1981’s My Life in the Bush of Ghosts, as well as several cuts from his work with Talking Heads. The audience seemed more captive during these songs and Byrne received a standing ovation every time he played a particularly memorable Talking Heads tune. Often, perhaps influenced by what was happening onstage, the audience performed their own brand of choreography by dancing in the aisles to the songs they knew by heart.


Of the Talking Heads songs, “Heaven” seemed to be the most timeless and brilliant. Floating in a dreamy epiphany, Byrne let his majestic vocals completely enrapture the crowd and made the song sound current even though it was written nearly 30 years ago. “Once in a Lifetime” also struck a happy note with many in the sold out Opera House and Byrne’s quirky sensibilities still came off as fresh and striking. Of course, no other Talking Heads song would have the unfortunate relevance as “Life During Wartime”.


Byrne seemed particularly excited about the Talking Heads material, especially the songs he played during the three encores, which included a more heavily gospel version of “Take Me to the River” and a powerful rendition of “Burning Down the House”. It felt invigorating to hear those songs live and the audience applauded so loudly they might have actually brought down a small house, or at least shook its foundations. It should not be understated how blissful the David Byrne live experience was. And despite the sublime set of songs and the accompanying choreography, it’s clearly a talent in and of itself to play for two full hours and still leave the audience eagerly, and quite passionately, wanting more.

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