"It seemed to be one of those reviews that comes from some psychological issues the writer has," David Byrne said of NY Times music critic Jon Pareles' take on Byrne's new show, "Songs of David Byrne and Brian Eno." It was a rare flash of anger from such a reserved, considered man. I deeply respect both Byrne and Pareles, so I was especially curious to check out Byrne's show at the Prospect Park bandshell the other night and see what the rhubarb was all about.
The show features music from the Eno-produced Talking Heads albums More Songs About Buildings and Food (1978), Fear of Music (1979) and Remain in Light (1980) – truly classic, revelatory records crammed with great songs about much more than just edifices and comestibles — as well as the pioneering Byrne/Eno collaboration My Life in the Bush of Ghosts (1981). Last year, the two men reunited for Everything That Happens Will Happen Today, a comparatively conventional album that was nonetheless tuneful and touching.
Really quickly, I started to see what Pareles was talking about. Although Byrne saw fit to travel with three dancers and three back-up singers, he neglected to hire a lead guitarist, and that formidable burden proved too much weight for his musical shoulders. When it came time for a guitar solo, all Byrne could manage was some rudimentary squalling, a far cry from Adrian Belew's mind-warping work on Remain in Light. Even worse, when Byrne took a lead, it meant his rhythm guitar playing was gone, handicapping whatever polyrhythmic levitation the able but short-handed band had achieved. The arrangements simply needed more musicians, especially Remain in Light standouts like "The Great Curve," "Born Under Punches" and "Crosseyed and Painless." In their original recorded versions and as performed by Talking Heads' expanded 1981 line-up, those numbers are sonic and rhythmic phenomena even more than they're songs in the traditional sense. It seemed as if Byrne's vanity got the better of him, that, as the title suggests, he made just a little much of those compositions as "Songs of David Byrne and Brian Eno."
Especially considering this was music so solidly rooted in funk and African musics, the whole show felt very uptight, everything strictly scripted, giving it the soulless feeling that Paul Simon has down to a tee. That monochromatic sensation found a visual analogue in the fact that the band and dancers were head to toe in blinding white. The only wild card came in the form of guest percussionist Steve Scales, who is not on the tour and presumably was sitting in just for this show. Scales was the delightfully effervescent de facto co-star of Stop Making Sense and he not only stuck out because he was wearing street clothes, but because he broke the mold, singing along and striding to the edge of the stage to enthusiastically hype the crowd into clapping along. Even Byrne couldn't suppress a smile.
But the coup de grâce was the trio of onstage dancers. They did the most banal sort of "modern dance," busting generic Broadway moves you might see in A Chorus Line. Seriously, they were on the verge of "jazz hands." It could not have been further from the worldliness and innovation that marks this trailblazing music. And imagine it going on throughout the show. It was distracting and unseemly, precisely the sort of mediocre culture we go to David Byrne to seek refuge from.
Sometimes the dancers would leap-frog not just over each other, but even over Byrne; during the encores, everyone came out in tutus, even Byrne. It was just undignified, and not in a refreshingly silly or even irreverent way. Earlier in the show, when Byrne and the dancers slid and twirled on office chairs during "Life Is Long," some leather-lunged wag in the audience hollered out, "WAY TO WORK THAT CHAIR, BUDDY!" which kind of said it all.
That said, it was a beautiful summer evening, the crowd was enthusiastic, the song selection was excellent, the band was tight. It was a good time — if you didn't think about it too much. But that's not the way this music originally succeeded. In fact, the more you thought about it, the better it got. So I'm with Pareles. But maybe I have psychological issues too.