Before David Byrne had even played a note Tuesday night show at Austin, Texas’ beautiful outdoor theater, the Backyard, the enthusiastic crowd greeted him the kind of applause usually reserved for a final bow. Visibly moved, all the former Talking Heads frontman could do was grin from ear to ear and wait it out for a chance to speak. “Well, I got what I wanted,” he said at last. “I can go home now.”
He stuck around anyway, rewarding the Texas crowd with a tight, twenty-song performance that underscored Byrne’s remarkable ear for skewed but unmistakably pop melodies every bit as much as his love for throwing exotic African and Central American rhythms together with strings and experimental guitar sounds. The unifying theme? Never be content with music being merely catchy, danceable, pretty or daring when it can be all four at once.
Accompanied only by bassist Paul Frazier and his own electric guitar (rigged in a way that made every note plucked sound like a chime), Byrne opened the set with the quietly beautiful “The Revolution,” one of several songs from throughout the evening plucked from his latest solo album, Look Into the Eyeball. Referring to a line in the song about “mattress springs,” Byrne joked that he’d written it hoping a mattress company would come running with an endorsement check, just as he’d been sure the name-checked Pizza Hut, 7-11 or Dairy Queen would bite on the tongue-in-cheek “Nothing But Flowers” that followed. “So far, none of them have stepped forward to support the arts,” he quipped.
That song, which introduced percussionist Mauro Refosco and drummer David Hilliard to the stage, was the first of Byrne’s cherry picked, faithfully rendered (and often enhanced) selections from the Talking Heads catalog. Other standouts on tap would include “And She Was,” “Life During Wartime,” and, of course, “Once in a Lifetime,” which had everyone on the stage and off (apart from the seated drummer) jumping in place. Byrne delivered each with an edge of nervous excitement, as though he were premiering them in public for the first time, beside himself with joy to find them all going over like gangbusters.
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Although the Heads tunes inevitably won the loudest cheers, the crowd — a giddy mix of twentysomethings and older New Wave veterans (with a good number of graying hippies thrown in for good measure) — responded nearly just as warmly to Byrne’s solo numbers, be they new (the resplendent “The Great Intoxication”), old (the philosophical but playful “Buck Naked”) or relatively obscure (the fine “God’s Child,” originally recorded as a duet with Selena for the late Tejano singer’s chart-topping Dreaming of You album). Eight songs into the set, on the aforementioned “Great Intoxication,” Byrne and band were joined by six members of Austin’s Tosca orchestra. “They look so good,” Byrne said of the attractive young string section, “I’m tempted to play with my back to the audience — and I’m just talking about the guys!” They sounded good, too, bringing a velvet richness to the second half of the set but never smothering an arrangement.
After the main set came to a close with “U.B. Jesus,” the snaky-rhythmed, fractured “gospel number” that opens Look Into the Eyeball, Byrne and band returned for three encores, the first and best juxtaposing the Heads’ “Life During Wartime” with a slightly slowed-down, but joyously sincere, pass through Whitney Houston’s “I Wanna Dance with Somebody (Who Loves Me).” Had Byrne displayed those words in flashing electric type from a poster-board-sized sign hung around his neck, his goal for the evening could not have been more clear from the get-go. And as this crowd had already proven before he even gave them anything to dance to, they loved him plenty.