Friday Night: David Byrne at the Greek Theatre

Categories: Last Night
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David Byrne, the cerebral, witty art rocker who has explored many areas of music and performance since his beginnings as part of the Talking Heads in the 70s, entranced a capacity crowd at Berkeley's Greek Theatre with a show entitled Songs of David Byrne and Brian Eno. Eno and Byrne first collaborated on the Talking Head's second album, More Songs About Buildings and Food, in 1978, and continued through two more Talking Heads albums and the 1981 Byrne/Eno album My Life in the Bush of Ghosts. After thirty years, they rejoined to make Everything That Happens Will Happen Today.

Byrne, all in white, to match his now-white hair, joined onstage by four musicians, three singers, and (eventually) three dancers, also all in white, greeted a crowd already amped and amused by a lively set from globally-inspired musical gypsies DeVotchKa. Referencing the stately setting, he said "We'll be doing some Greek tragedies -- Euripides," almost but not quite quoting the vaudeville stalwart "Euripides? Eumenides!" by continuing "No, not my pants...We're going to do some Brian Eno stuff, and other things that he and I did back in the day -- and break the rule book and do some other stuff, too."

Whereupon the group launched into a seamless celebration, beginning with Strange Overtones from the new album, and continuing through fourteen more songs, including much of Everything that Happens, but also many more. Shifting lights in primary colors and Byrne's playful interaction with the dancers (choreographed in arty-yet-artless, rather gymnastic modern-dance style by Noemie Lafrance, Annie-B Parson, and robbinschilds), as well as a constant re-configuring of the musicians, kept things more than fresh.

After a version of the Talking Heads' Houses in Motion, the audience cheered for so long it stopped the show, making Byrne giggle "Oh my goodness, thank you, wow" before launching into My Big Nurse, sounding almost country-western (in a show that also featured gospel, Afro-Cuban, and techno/ambient influences.)

Byrne writes lyrics that sound simple but that are at the same time not just allusive and poetic but aphoristic. In a setting that sometimes seemed partially obscured by blue clouds of marijuana smoke, eventually the state of bliss and connectedness with an artist in which he seemed to be speaking directly to you was achieved. The people standing in the enormous fluid mosh pit that is the ground floor of the Greek were constantly moving; many sitting down on the huge stone stairs that form the ampitheathre were rapt with attention, silently mouthing the lyrics along with Byrne.

By the time Byrne launched into the Heads' Once in a Lifetime (during which a dancer leapt over his head), seguing into Life during Wartime, the lines "this ain't no party, this ain't no disco," were belied by the fact that most of the crowd were on their feet. They calmed a bit while Byrne sang the plaintive I Feel My Stuff ("I think I waited too long..."), which was the last song before the inevitable encores.

He introduced his musicians -- Mark Degli Antoni on keyboards, Paul Frazier on bass, Mauro Refrosco on percussion, Graham Hawthorne on drums -- before launching into Take Me to the River. For a moment, I thought the first big notes were the intro to Beat It, in honor of Michael Jackson, who had died just the day before. After the following song, I Know Sometimes a Man is Wrong, again the applause seemed endless.

"There's more," Byrne said, and indeed there was: in an amazing coup de theatre, the Extra Action Marching Band began descending from just below the ring of towering eucalyptus trees towards the stage down the center of the Greek. Already in a Dionysian frenzy, there were four girls in black wigs with bangs, shaking their silver pompoms and everything else, in skintight tiny white dresses with arm fringe; two gogo boys in tall black shakos and fringed tighty-whities, and two more waving silver flags; and an explosion of brass-playing and drum-toting musicians, too many to count while in the inexorable propulsive grip of We're on the Road to Nowhere, which turned into Burning Down the House. The suddenly wildly sexual stage show was even more startling and effective because of the rather sexless, more childlike dancing that had gone on before, as someone observed (okay, it was Vendela Vida, credit where credit is due). I had never heard of the Bay Area-based alternative marching band before (whom, it turned out, had collaborated with him before), and now I wanted to see one of their own shows.

Soothed by a simple acoustic version of Everything that Happens ("from the milk of human kindness, from the breast we all partake, hungry for a social contact"), the crowd floated out. We overheard, more than once, "This was the best concert I ever went to." It was certainly one of our favorites.

Critical bias: I was lucky enough to go backstage afterwards with a friend for a magical party, lit by huge glowing Chinese lanterns, and got to chat for a bit with a similarly glowing (but not-at-all huge) David Byrne, who looked surprisingly slender after his outsized performance onstage. Since the tour started last September and is scheduled to continue through August, I asked him if I was mistaken in thinking that tonight's crowd, which had stopped the show twice, had been especially demonstrative. "No, " he said, "it was an amazing evening. Tonight the audience was the star!" I didn't think so, but it was nice to hear that he'd also had a good time.

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