Tuesday, June 9, 2009
Show Review: David Byrne @ Prospect Park, 06/08/09
After keeping a low profile since the Talking Heads disbanded around 1989 (1992 if you charitably include the Heads-in-name-only "Sax and Violins" from Wim Wenders's Until the End of the World), David Byrne has emerged from his hermitage as one of the more resurgent musicians of the decade. The renaissance culminated with last year's Everything That Happens Will Happen Today, a collaboration with Brian Eno that found the alt-geezers tastefully mining the saccharine waters of adult contemporary -- not entirely surprising considering Eno's recent productions of Coldplay & Paul Simon and Byrne's soundtrack work -- while still managing to somehow sound medium cool. Although the album foundered on the charts, it provided a convenient excuse to mount a lucrative tour in the vein of the halcyon Stop Making Sense extravaganza. And so Byrne has returned to many of the same barns where he enjoyed the spoils of nascent success twenty five years ago with an odd sense of vindication. While he was never able to parlay "Burning Down the House" into Pretenders/UB40/Blondie megastardom -- not that he ever wanted to, mind you -- he's remained on the same plateau of visibility on his own hermetic, everything-including-the-Twyla Tharp dancers terms. Which is more than contemporaries like Lou Reed (now living vicariously through wife Laurie Anderson) or Deborah Harry & Chris Stein (relegated to the purgatory of the oldies circuit, more or less) could ever say.
Over the years, true believers in Byrne have had to endure the usual laundry list of complaints and remonstrations from the likes of former bandmate Tina Weymouth: he's indifferent to friendship; his callow opportunism during the Remain in Light sessions engendered more bad morale than good music in the long run; he's just not a nice guy, the archetypal Faust in the flesh. Alas, according to a Celebrate Brooklyn stagecrew member, Byrne went out of his way to make the stagehands feel like a part of the family yesterday, joking around during a lengthy soundcheck. "He's still got it," my friend texted me, and while I was obviously skeptical -- another friend prognosticated that the free show was destined to be "less than vintage" -- he hit it right on the nail.
When we arrived a little after 5:00, the serpentine line extended from the Lafayette memorial entrance on 9th Street and Prospect Park West to at least 11th Street; it would swiftly double over the next hour. The crowd was already shaping up to be an idiosyncratic, only-in-Brooklyn convocation of frayed hippies of all ages (obviously cognizant of the Garcia maxim that "music is music"), local yuppies, Afrocentric types, hipsters, normal people (including bros in Celtics jerseys), Jack and Hank from the Mighty Handful, a couple of college acquaintances, more hipsters, Vampire Weekend-venerating altbros, and the cop/fireman/garbageman who wound up standing next to us for the entire show. Diverse? Try microcosmic. But as someone pointed out, "all of them -- even the normal folks -- seemed to be a little off, a little weird, just like Byrne."
After an ebullient introduction from Marty Markowitz (who else?), Byrne and his eight-piece band -- soon to be accompanied by three contemporary dancers -- took the stage in their already-iconic white outfits to the tune of "Strange Overtones" from Everything that Happens. While the results were less than feral mania of Stop Making Sense, the new songs -- which, to Byrne's credit, comprised a substantial portion of the set -- sounded far more muscular than their flaccid album counterparts. On the surface, "I Zimbra" was no match for the Busta Jones
-driven renditions of the early 80s (yes, that is an euphemism), but upon further reflection the slower tempo brought out the hidden Afrofunk long subsumed by the Arthur Russell-style beat; "Heaven"'s breakneck arrangement was a moment of Dylanesque insouciance, the hymn transformed into something almost unrecognizable... and just as good. (The repetitious synth loop on "Once in a Lifetime" was not nearly as interesting in its 21st Century incarnation, however.) Schooled well in frantic contemporary styles, the much-buzzed-about dancers initially detracted from Byrne's laconic stage demeanor, but their presence was a subtle tip of the hat to his collaboration with Tharp and the collusions that permeated the downtown arts scene in the 1970s. Stagey -- though not as stagey as they could have been, judging by their strategic presence on only a handful of songs -- but essential, just as percussionist Steve Scale's presence on "Life During Wartime" and the encores established necessary continuity with the Expanded Heads ensemble that toured many of these songs thirty years ago.
By the time Byrne donned a tutu for the second encore of "Burning Down the House" (followed by the slightly anticlimactic finale of "Everything that Happens"... um, where was "This Must Be The Place"?), he was oozing in layers of sweat; naturally, the 10,000+ assembled in the park clamored for even more. As the crowd slowly dispersed into the Slope, an aging yuppie -- potbellied and hunched over, a far cry from his Patrick Bateman salad days circa 1985 -- inquired his family about "this new group called the Management -- who are they?"
Needless to say, one couldn't help but to smile. A good time was had by all, and kudos to Byrne and Celebrate Brooklyn for making it possible.