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David Byrne Remains in the Light

A Talking Head indulges old neuroses and gorgeous new hymns at Radio City

David Byrne is the most nonchalantly confident stupendously awkward person probably in all of history, but certainly in the history of those disciplines (rock music, conceptual art, bicycle activism, PowerPoint presentation, blogging) to which he is inclined and to which he is invaluable. That his beloved, long-bygone Talking Heads remain my Favorite Band Ever is probably a useful prism through which to view my elation Friday night as he saunters onstage at Radio City Music Hall, dressed—like his backing band, his backup singers, and, soon, his dancers—all in flowing, angelic white, and immediately starts just hardcore rambling.

Think of it as a sort of mumblecore soliloquy. He rambles about the last place they'd played ("lovely Calgary"). About the impetus for this new, far-reaching tour (to promote last year's sleepy, elegiac Everything That Happens Will Happen Today, his second co-starring collaboration with Brian Eno, i.e., "a producer I worked with back in the day"). About how far back in the day we're talking exactly (his first co-starring collaboration with Eno, who'd already produced several stupendous Talking Heads albums, was 1981's My Life in the Bush of Ghosts; the intervening years between then and now are described as "a gap filled with a couple of things, but not very much"). About his stance on mid-concert amateur photography ("Feel free to do whatever you want, but don't shove the people in front of you out of the way so you can get a good shot"). Throughout the night, he adds his thoughts on tonight's venue ("This is a big place. Did you check out the restrooms?"), Bush of Ghost's then unheard-of emphasis on "found vocals" ("We didn't exactly find them—we had to go looking"), and the predatory nefariousness of Ticketmaster (the only instance this evening of loud, lusty, sustained audience booing). And between such ramblings, in melodically sweet, rhythmically vicious, naively gorgeous songs both old and very new, Byrne clutches his guitar and dances, rendering him more awkward and invaluable still.

He dances like a very uptight, prim, erudite, white-haired man dancing at a wedding—let's say, to "Love Shack"—his hips oscillating in perfect Hula Hoop form (which looks very odd sans Hula Hoop), his face placid to the point of paralysis as he barks out the "facts are simple and facts are straight" proto-rap at the center of "Crosseyed and Painless," one of several standing-O-inducing classic tunes tonight. Three lithe, exuberant dancers spend most of the show prancing about the stage seemingly at random, mischievously stealing the backing vocalists' mics; for the loping Everything track "Life Is Long," they spin slowly around in office chairs, catatonic. Byrne joins them, both in the chair-spinning and the cheerfully chaotic flow of movement generally. The dancers skip around and leap over him; at one point during "Houses in Motion," he trust-falls into their arms and is lifted back to a standing position as he lets out a robust, shell-shocked "Whooooaaaaa!!"

The basic element to the Byrne-Eno partnership, both within and without Talking Heads, is manic, hypnotic, intoxicating rhythm, here supplied by both a drummer (Graham Hawthorne) and a full-scale percussionist (Mauro Refosco), and further exacerbated by Soul Coughing vet Mark Degliantoni, whose torrents of keyboard squiggles and samples make him seem like he's just adjusting the volume and channel of a blaring television. All three tear hungrily into the bombastic Bush of Ghosts track "Help Me Somebody," with Byrne yelping all the sampled manic-preacher bits ("Talkin' funny and lookin' funny!"); the backup singers expertly navigate the overlapping word-salad chants that drive "The Great Curve" and croon in unison on the laid-back, near-"Margaritaville" shuffle of "Heaven." It takes awhile to get those two camps operating at full power in unison: The first Heads tune of the night, the jovially bewildering tribal chant "I Zimbra," comes off a bit too tentative, too precious, too music-boxy. But maybe 90 minutes later, "Burning Down the House" is completely hedonistic and uninhibited, both aurally and visually, as everyone is now for some reason wearing white tutus, including the avalanche of auxiliary backup dancers who crowd the stage and form a faux-Rockette kick line.

The old stuff from back in the day gets the most raucous crowd reaction, of course, which Byrne doesn't seem to mind. He's goofily apologetic about playing the Everything tracks; the fact that the record was playing over the PA for the hour before the show began suggested he might not even mess with it at all. But its slower, calmer, more pastoral feel ("electronic gospel," they call it) breaks things up nicely. "My Big Nurse" is a warped, apocalyptic country ballad, while "I Feel My Stuff" lurches from an eerie, haunted-house slither (the dancers all crowding into Byrne's spotlight, the rest of the stage bathed in shadow) to a bright, garish, go-go-dancing explosion. And for a violently demanded third encore, with plenty of yet-unplayed vintage jams at his disposal (what, no "Cities"?), Byrne instead opts to close out the night with "Everything That Happens," the new record's prettiest and most disarming moment, its chorus a familiar jumble of blithe gibberish and plainspoken poignance:

Everything that happens will happen today

And nothing has changed but

nothing's the same

And every tomorrow will be yesterday

And everything that happens

will happen today

Whether this statement is meant to be idealistic or funereal, whether this particular electronic-gospel verse is from Genesis or Revelations, goes unspecified, but the tune's beautiful melancholy is its own reward and its own message. I'd lean toward the former, though. Byrne will, by popular demand, still howl, "This is not my beautiful house! This is not my beautiful wife!" on occasion, but Everything suggests someone far less manic, still very much disoriented by the world around him but much more at peace with that, his hips oscillating almost subconsciously, fully in thrall to the awkwardness of hope.

rharvilla@villagevoice.com

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