08 November 2008

david byrne at the tower theater.

hooray. after several weeks of impulsively refreshing http://philadelphia.craigslist.org/search/sss?query=david%20byrne and a handful of fruitless e-mail negotiations, we scored a pair of face-value pit tickets, row CCC (i.e. third row, 4 and 5 seats from the center aisle) from a guy who posted this afternoon, that put us about ten feet from the stage, in (as nava promptly noted) the first row of stadium seating.

david david david. not to recount our long history, as i've done a bunch of times, at least once on this site; though it is striking that it's now been over ten years since i first saw him, with my parents, at a rochester venue (water street r.i.p.?) about 1/20th the size and grandeur of this one. since then i can't remember if it was one or two shows in 2001 at the tla (but i think two), one at the lovely count basie theater in red bank n.j. in 2004, one at carnegie hall last winter. a bunch of great and varied shows, and quite a progression of venues (the tower admittedly a step down from carnegie, but not all that far down.)

was thinking about how much db's stature has changed over those years, as an established musical luminary and general cultural luminary (and also a-list gotham arts-world celeb?) it's not that his (solo) music has gotten all that much more popular since feelings (1997) initiated my interest in (love for) his contemporary career output. (certainly one reason why this tour is so large-scaled is that he's specifically reviving a lot of talking heads material, even though he's also done that every other time i've seen him.) and i doubt anyone expects everything that happens will happen today (2008) to sell especially many more copies than his last bunch of albums, even though it seems, much more than his others, to arrive with a ready-made sense of historicity attached.

yeah, i get that it's about brian eno too, or at least about their collaboration... okay, that's fine. but frankly, if you ask me, this is a david byrne record. eno's a record producer, albeit an extremely big-deal one - to me and many people, he's never been anywhere near as popular or fascinating or exciting as david, but that's another matter - but these are clearly byrne's songs (he wrote the "words and melodies," or something like that), even if eno is responsible for their (less than luminous) compositional underpinnings.

basically, db's cachet seems pretty much unimpeachable in the mid-to-late 2000s, as a combo result of his assorted slate of recent artistic activities and (more significantly) the increasing canonization of talking heads, from various angles, as influential and innovative and otherwise essential. q.v. the whole 1980s new york punk-funk underground hoo-hah, also just the fact that in the '90s the heads had been together less than ten years ago. plus his signing to nonesuch (who reissued the first byrneno alb last year, etc etc.) y'know.

all of which makes this tour (the songs of david byrne and brian eno tour) feel a good bit more of an event than others, or than is usually conducive to transcendent concert-going experiences. which isn't to say it wasn't totally awesome, for sure. also complicating is that i'd heard a fair amount of advance press - this was almost the last date out of two months (though that's just the first leg of a six month world tour), at least the fourth or so in easy driving distance, and the pesky interweb had pre-warned me that this would probably be the closest i'd ever come to experiencing my fabled pop mecca, the whole 1984 stop making sense shebang/panithiopliconica. which of course meant it couldn't possibly live up to it (not that i'd have expected that anyway.)

anyway, it was clearly cut from similar rock-show-as-performance-art/scripted-spectacle cloth, but this ain't no nostalgia trip, at least it's much better not to take it that way (like i said, he's been performing plenty of these songs all along, which makes it kinda cloying that we're seemingly supposed to treasure them so especially dearly this time around.) there's more thn plenty rock show and spectacle on its own here without needing to lean on any reflected glory. the gang on stage (db+11 - among them marc d.g.a. from soul coughing and g+m muldaur's daughter - including 3 dancers and 3 singers, who also occasionally sang and danced) were a relatively young and energetic bunch, with a median age probably at least twenty less than the 56-yo byrne (he's my mom's age), who still has as much youthful energy as any of 'em, and looks like a silver-haired angel-demigod to boot.

so yeah. the new songs are good - mellow, but not overly so (the set-closing "i feel my stuff" got downright fierce); gospelly as promised (via soul and/or country), big simple swoony group-harmony vocal hooks. haven't digested the lyrics all yet, but they nod pleasingly to his younger, angrier, output, and his style hasn't changed all that much (from "world moves on a woman's hips" to the world as "my big nurse" and "the milk of human kindness/from the breast we all partake"; "everything that happens will happen today" vs. "heaven is a place where nothing ever happens.")

similarly, the choreography of the sleek modern dancers (they were on stage about half the time, it seemed, doing everything from contact lifts to twirling on office chairs) occasionally winked at db's heads-era movement vocab - most notably some subtle quotations from the "once in a lifetime" video, and running during the break of "life during wartime." can't speak to whether the "new ography" for the twyla tharp excerpt "big hands" had anything to do with the original, probably not, but it's a good reminder of how fitting it was for there to be modern dancers (db's been working with them for a long time) - a worthy replacement for the string section he had on the last couple tours.

remain in light, never my favorite album, though it may still be growing on me (is that allowed?) got four of its eight songs aired; the obvious ones (since "born under punches" always seems to get short shrift these days) including a totally awesome "great curve" and, my favorite, "houses in motion," which had some of the best choreography (and lighting work) and i wish had come later in the set so i'd have appreciated it more. fear of music actually had four selections too, though i always forget to associate "heaven" and "wartime" with that album (since they're on sms i guess), and the always-punchy i zimbra was slotted second before the new-mellow-one/old-dancy-one rhythm got smoothly established (there was a bit too much up-and-down in our seats over the course of it.) best - and most surprising thing in the show - though was "air," in the second encore. what a crazy, ridiculous, paranoia-perfect song. ("some people say not to worry 'bout the air/some people don't know shit about air!") (and a better representative of what i think of as the utterly weird core of the album.)

would have been cool to hear more more songs songs (i guess eno was less involved? i almost said they're less poppy, but that's...not true.) they did "take me to the river" though, and that is a good good good good-ass song. they backup singers were especially having fun on that one. and he "snuck in" "burning down the house" (as if somebody would complain?) (web tells me they've also done "don't worry about the gvmt" - now that would've gotten me in the gut.) furthermore, there was the catherine wheel bit and, awesomely, "help me somebody" from my life in the bush with db singing/speaking the part of the sampled evangelical preacher.

a fair amount of material, though it was not, as it turned out, a particularly lengthy show. the set proper was over in a bit more than an hour, and there were three encores (five songs? six?) that didn't make it all that much longer, and (from perspective) mostly failed at creating the illusion of an indulgently long show such as the kind that usually has three encores. maybe it's because i sort of knew to expect them, but the encores felt annoyingly obvious/scripted - as is always true with encores these days (you just keep clapping until they one when turn on the lights, and then you leave right away) - but it seemed like with a show as conceptual as this (not heavy-handedly so, but still) they could have come up with a more interesting way to bring it to a satisfying conclusion. it reminded me most of the ritual leavings and enterings and multiple bowings at an orchestra concert.

ah well. i hope it doesn't sound like i'm complaining. some perspective may be in order - suffice to say, of all the various accolades i could lay on him, david byrne remains one of the most soulful, and inspiring performers - or artists, period - that i have ever seen or encountered.

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