The song was unrecognizable at first. The five-piece string section began by playing high, staccato notes, sounding like a Bernard Hermann tribute band. The crowd waited in confused anticipation. But when David Byrne, the evening’s headliner, stepped up to the microphone, their confusion quickly dissipated. “I can’t seem to face the facts,” he sang. “I’m tense and nervous, and I can’t relax.” Suddenly, it all made sense. It was “Psycho Killer” à la Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho. As he sang the almost 30 year old song, Byrne even started looking eerily similar to Norman Bates. Once he and his band hit the chorus though, the former Talking Heads frontman couldn’t help but laugh, as his frightening tale of a homicidal maniac had somehow been transformed into the night’s most enthusiastic singalong.
That was only one of several odd aspects of Byrne’s recent sold out concert at the Denver Botanic Gardens. The venue itself was strange; the stage was at the bottom of several sloping lawns, and picnickers with beach chairs and blankets surrounded the musicians. Like Byrne himself, most of the audience was middle-aged and greying. They sipped wine and ate gourmet prepared foods. A startling number of toddlers waddled about. In other words, we were a long way from CBGB’s, where Talking Heads first made a name for themselves all those years ago.
Of course, Byrne wouldn’t want it any other way. He never really fit in with New York’s mid-seventies punk scene. Indeed, the only indication of his rock and roll past on this night was his occasionally distorted guitar playing. His band featured two percussionists, a bassist, and the Tosca Strings. The resulting music shifted ably from Afro-Beat pop to skewed folk rock to thumping dance music. At the center of it all, Byrne played jubilant ringleader. He’s looking good these days; with his grey hair, dapper suit, and easy smile, he’s positively distinguished, like an eccentric but friendly professor. Byrne is still pretty far from the middle of the road, though—he threw in plenty of his singularly gawky dance moves throughout the show, and bugged his eyes crazily in a manner reminiscent of his more manic stage presence seen in the classic Talking Heads concert film Stop Making Sense. But for the most part, he came across as surprisingly content, as he flirted with the string section and soaked in the ample applause.
Byrne has been enjoying a slightly higher profile these days, thanks to a handful of excellent solo albums (2001’s Look Into The Eyeball and 2004’s Grown Backwards) as well as last year’s career-spanning Talking Heads box set, and the reissue of the band’s long-unavailable live album, The Name of This Band is Talking Heads. Fittingly, the setlist drew liberally from each segment of his long career. There were plenty of the obligatory hits: “Road to Nowhere”, “Heaven”, and “Once in a Lifetime” were all given sturdy airings, sticking close to their original recordings. But there was also room for such under-appreciated gems as “What a Day That Was” (from Byrne’s soundtrack to Twyla Tharp’s ballet The Catherine Wheel), and a powerful rendition of “The Great Intoxication”, one of his best recent songs.
Byrne’s first encore kicked off with “Life During Wartime”, a song that has (unfortunately) become current yet again. “The sound of gunfire, off in the distance / I’m getting used to it now,” he sang, and you couldn’t help but think of the war in Iraq. In concert, however, the song (like the nightmare visions of “Psycho Killer”) wasn’t without its fair share of iron—it’s a hell of a dance song, and the audience was brought to its feet by the rousing “This ain’t no disco!” chorus. Has the apocalypse ever sounded so good?