Sketches of the set’s various personnel
and instrument placements looked, in this reporter’s notes, like sports
plays devised by the insane: little tornados of almost a dozen figures,
air-swimming, cart-wheeling, dosey-do-ing amid microphones, guitars
(with and without strings), bass, keyboard, drums and various hand
percussion including what were perhaps starfish on sticks. Photos of
the tour’s earlier gigs at www.davidbyrne.com suggest that the former Talking Heads
leader went as all-out for little ol’ Syracuse as he has for Chicago,
St. Louis and San Francisco. That meant not only the full white-clad
personnel (literally all white, right down to Byrne’s watch)
but a set list that spanned from the Heads’ heydays (“Burning Down the
House,” “Life During Wartime”) to his solo work, including curios such
as his 1981 score for the Twyla Tharp dance project The Catherine Wheel.
That album’s “My Big Hands (Fall Through the Cracks)” was reprised here
as a robo-groove number with wheezing-machinery ambience courtesy of
keyboardist Mark Degli Antoni, the most versatile of Byrne’s band members tone-wise.
Of course, Byrne’s tag-team efforts with Eno were well-tapped, too, with around half of Everything That Happens
popping up. “My Big Nurse,” a pensive number swathed in faux pedal
steel, pointed at the hope we can find amid life’s bedlam: “I’m
counting all the possibilities/ for dancing on this lazy afternoon,” he
sang, at one point swaying with eyes fixed heavenward beside his
dancers. But Byrne, 56, isn’t necessarily a sold optimist; in “Life is
Long,” he reflected on being “sawed in half by the passage of time,”
and in the title track showed a little shell-shock from everyday life:
“I heard the sound of someone laughing/ I heard my neighbor’s car
His strategy, like any good artist’s,
isn’t necessarily to come to a conclusion about the way things are, but
merely to acknowledge reality on the way to escaping it; Byrne’s has
always been through funk, in whatever permutated fashion it comes out
as. Bassist Paul Frazier and drummer Graham Hawthorne, like the Talking Heads’ Tina Weymouth and Chris Frantz
years ago, built thick, interweaving train tracks of rhythms that Byrne
roared down with his rhythm-based strums and nervous quaver of a voice.
The sense of forward movement, even with textural detours and
economical solos here and there, was indelible.
Walking Talking Head: David Byrne gets happy feet during his Nov. 29 Landmark Theatre concert.
And while the result, like with the
Talking Heads, was infectious, one couldn’t help but wonder if dancing
and smoking herb (with no offense meant to this reporter’s seated
neighbors) wasn’t quite a worthy response—at least in itself. Byrne is
a cerebral musician, and if you were to feel inclined to dissect the
particulars of his Afro-urbane, gospel-confessional, theater-informed
art-rock, you’d have lots to ruminate. Like, for example, do those
white outfits (protocol for every show on his fall 2008 tour, it seems)
imply innocence or surrender? And what does that weird line in “Houses
In Motion” that goes, “I’m walking a line, visiting houses in motion,” really mean? And how does Byrne get so friggin’ funky on rhythm guitar without ever using a wah-wah?
Well, the latter, at least, was easy to
answer for the Landmark crowd: it’s not the knifelike chords alone, but
the crazily powerful convergence of backbeat, voice, low end, sweat and
motion. “Houses in Motion,” whatever it’s about, stirred up everything
good about this traveling troupe and sustained it until the lockstep
beat’s last note, after which a standing, screaming ovation was offered
up. It was hard to believe the set had begun just 25 minutes prior.