Twice in a lifetime

by Guy Somerset / 21 February, 2009
David Byrne triumphantly revisits his collaborations with Brian Eno.

Succumbing to nostalgia (his own and his audience's) is not without its perils for David Byrne. "Sing something we know," yells a heckler part-way through Byrne's tremendous two-hour concert in Wellington's Michael Fowler Centre, miffed that he's included so many songs from his new collaboration with Brian Eno, Everything That Happens Will Happen Today, rather than solely revisiting their earlier partnership on Talking Heads albums More Songs About Buildings and Food (1978), Fear of Music (1979) and Remain in Light (1980) and My Life in the Bush of Ghosts (1981).

As it happens, Byrne has just been playing a song from Fear of Music, albeit the lesser-known Heaven; with wonderful irony, lost on our heckler friend, it's a song that contains the line "The band in heaven plays my favourite song, they play it once again, they play it all night long", where heaven could very well be hell ("Heaven is a place where nothing ever happens" - a chorus comparable to the exquisitely rendered emptiness of Roxy Music's "More than this there's nothing").

The favourite song of this audience isn't hard to figure out, and it isn't far off - but Byrne isn't about to play it all night long. The songs from Everything That Happens Will Happen Today may sound sonically timid after the glories of Byrne and Eno's past, but it remains a strong album by any other standard, and Byrne threads its contents throughout the concert.

Strange Overtones from the album proves a deceptively subdued opener - the sound flat, and Byrne and his four-strong band and three backing singers looking lost on a wide open stage. However, the fact everyone is dressed in white (matching Byrne's hair) is one indication of the thought that has gone into the night, and that wide open stage is soon explained, and filled, by three dancers whose wittily choreographed interaction with Byrne and his singers on second number I Zimbra and thereafter - in one memorable instance sitting in office chairs - is a magical mainstay of the concert.

The sound falls flat twice more - on both occasions a result of the sophisticated album arrangements of Eno diffused in a live setting: on Help Me Somebody from My Life in the Bush of Ghosts (with Byrne taking the ranting preacher role) and at the beginning of Crosseyed and Painless from Remain in Light.

Nonetheless, Crosseyed and Painless is the song that has the audience streaming forth from their seats down to the front of the stage, unable to hold their feet any longer as its uncertain start gives way to the ecstasy of a fully-fledged funk workout.

More of the audience emerges - and still more energetically - for that favourite song, Once in a Lifetime, written by Byrne as a young man imagining the mystifications of middle age and now embraced by an audience, like Byrne, middle-aged themselves, but joyous in the face of the lyric, joining in with relish the anguished cry: "My God, what have I done?" (The anguished cry is just one end of Byrne's vocal range, which also encompasses nervy neurosis, swelling pop and the sweetest soul.)

Remain in Light provides many of the high points of the night, as it has for Byrne's career: Houses in Motion, Born Under Punches (The Heat Goes On), The Great Divide.

But, along with Life During Wartime (climaxing in a dance, rather than guitar, solo) and Take Me to the River, there is an exceptional version of Everything That Happens Will Happen Today's most expansively Enoesque soundscape, I Feel My Stuff (with its spectral piano opening building toward a wild wig-out), and the one that brings down the house is Burning Down the House, with band and dancers, male and female alike, in white tutus and Byrne giving a curtsy afterward.

If one were going to be pedantic, this is not an Eno collaboration, but from the self-produced, Alex Sadkin-engineered 1983 Talking Heads album, Speaking in Tongues. But who would be pedantic after a concert like this? Who would be anything other than grateful to have witnessed such a night? The only heckling at the end is for Byrne to sing something more.

DAVID BYRNE: THE SONGS OF DAVID BYRNE AND BRIAN ENO, Michael Fowler Centre, Wellington, February 13.

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