in performance: david byrne

David Byrne. Photo by Jody Rogac.

During one of the first greetings he gave the audience last night at the PNC Pavilion in Cincinnati, David Byrne proudly came clean. He admitted, without prejudice to modern pop technology, that every note, beat, melody and backing vocal fueling his beguiling one-and-three-quarter hour performance, was produced organically and in real time by a band that often rivaled the head Talking Head himself for crowd attention.
That’s because the 11 members of Byrne’s ensemble – over half of which were percussionists – were as much of a portable fixture as Byrne. Operating from a stage completely barren of platforms, monitors or anchored equipment of any kind, the musicians – all dressed in matching grey suits, all barefoot – became a performance composite of marching band, dance squad and street parade crew. The show, in fact, stayed put only at its onset, when Byrne was seated alone onstage at a table pondering a model of a human brain the way Hamlet pontificated over the skull of Yorick. The tune this set up was “Here” – curiously, the finale song to Byrne’s new “American Utopia” album.
Singer/dancers Chris Giarmo and Tendayi Kuumba slipped onstage during the opening and remained Byrne’s tireless performance lieutenants for much of the evening. The bulk of the rhythm section was introduced during the riotously joyous “Lazy” (an obscure bonus track from 2004’s “Grown Backwards”) before the full percussive might of the band fell in line for the 1979 Talking Heads dervish “I Zimbra.”
That the band remained in constant motion (often, choreographed motion) was dazzling enough. But the fact it sounded so clear, vibrant and, frankly, resourceful, added a true sense of fascination. Take for instance the transformation of two “American Utopia” tunes that proved to be vast improvements on their studio versions. During “I Dance Like This,” the robotic chorus originally constructed around pulsating synthesizers was propelled by three members of the percussion team tapping out beats on the single-string berimbau. Earlier, for “Everybody’s Coming to My House” (arguably the new album’s most arresting tune), the entire melodic structure opened up with rich vocal and keyboard textures.
As for Byrne himself, he remained something of a pop wonder. At 66, he sang with unblemished clarity and verve, whether it was during the jubilant “Every Day is a Miracle” (also from “American Utopia”) or a densely patterned but modestly streamlined take on Talking Heads’ turbulent “The Great Curve.” It was also a kick to watch a discreet lighting effect produce a colossus-sized shadow of the singer during the Talking Heads obscurity “Blind” in a way that brought to mind similar hijinks from the vanguard concert film “Stop Making Sense.”
While there were hints of topical protest, especially during the encore cover of Janelle Monae’s “Hell You Taimbout” (where Byrne and the entire band reverted to percussion), this was a purposely good natured, even polite program. You could tell just how keenly Byrne was minding his manners when he half apologized for a lyric in the “American Utopia” tune “Dog’s Mind” that referenced “doggy dancers doing duty.”
“By that, I meant obligation,” Byrne sheepishly told the crowd. “Not the other kind.”

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