Live Report: David Byrne in Providence

The Strand Theatre, Providence, R.I., August 5, 1997

Short of being honored by a ticker-tape parade in the city where he attended the Rhode Island School of Design, David Byrne couldn't have made a splashier return to the stage on the opening night of his 20-date tour.

The Big Suit is long gone, but Byrne did his indelible image one better by striding onstage wearing a fuzzy, day-glo pink body suit. Looking like an Easter bunny for the art-school set, he launched into a feverish version of "Once In A Lifetime," a classic Talking Heads tune from 1980's Remain in Light.

But make no mistake about it: Byrne's return to his alma mater's city was no nostalgia trip. As a testament to the strength and sweep of his new album, Feelings, he scattered more than half-dozen new tunes amid a 15-song, career-spanning set that included inevitable favorites like his signature take on Al Green's "Take Me To The River," and a genuinely creepy version of "Psycho Killer." For that jaunty little lullaby, Byrne emerged from the darkness wearing a skintight muscle-and-tissue outfit ripped from the pages of "Gray's Anatomy," then stalked the stage while Bruce Kaphan's deranged guitar howled around him like screams in the wind.

Less dramatic but nearly as compelling was his new material, including the sitar-flavored soul of "Daddy Go Down" and the angular groove of "Dance On Vaseline." The latter illustrated Byrne's continued affinity for crafting the kind of idiosyncratic pop rhythms that defined the term "New Wave" 20 years ago. From there, he moved deftly to the radiant grace of "A Soft Seduction," a number that showcased his skill for conjuring dream-like drama with the simplest of tools.

While Byrne has often approached his art with too much head and not enough heart, few artists can match his gift for fusing seemingly opposite approaches to song structure -- sophistication and minimalism -- into something distinctively different. From the ersatz Afro-funk of one 18-year-old song, "I Zimbra," to the eerie soundscapes of a new one, "The Gates of Paradise," his music keenly refracted his world of constantly shifting impulses and expanding horizons. Long after most of his peers have become trapped in various creative ruts, Byrne made himself new again by staying the same as he ever was: unpredictable and often brilliant.