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Columns > John Zinkand - Improvise

Published: 2009/06/28
by John Zinkand

Byrne, BabyByrne

On June 23rd David Byrne rolled into town to play a long anticipated show here in Portland, OR. It had been a few years since his last visit here, and I was extremely anxious to see what he had in store for us this time around. Having seen David Byrne perform live a few times over the years, I knew to expect a nice smattering of his newest work, some Talking Heads classics, and a couple choice cuts from his vast solo catalog. Each and every time Ive seen him, however, the band changes, the costumes and outfits change, and the arrangements and instrumentation changes. As David Byrne gets older, he strives to reinvent himself on the stage and it works with stunning results.
I had been anticipating this show for quite some time not only because I had not seen Byrne before for so long, but also because June 23rd happens to be my girlfriends birthday and I was excited to take her to see the show as one of her presents. She vaguely knew David Byrne was the lead guy for the Talking Heads and was familiar with some of his more popular tunes, but thats about it. So while she was excited for the prospect of seeing him play live, she didnt understand what an incredible performer he is. I was secretly grinning inside, anxious to see her reaction to what promised to be an incredible show.
When I think back to the first time I saw David Byrne play live in 1997 or 1998 supporting his then new solo album Feelings, I get the shivers. This show was performed outdoors up on the hill in Washington Park in Portland, Oregons famous Rose Test Garden. The band shell is now only used for private functions, so I am thankful I got to see anyone perform there, especially David Byrne. His band was great, he wore multiple costumes including a gigantic pink fuzzy suit for the tune Fuzzy Freakies (Because I am fuzzy.and I am freaky! he quipped from the stage), and his banter and conversation with the crowd was interesting and funny. Since then Ive been hooked and have seen him every time he has come to town.
He is such a great performer, in fact, that I was excited to see the show even though I had no idea what his newest material even sounded like. I must admit I have not bought or even listened to his newest album he created along with Brian Eno, Everything That Happens Will Happen Today. After seeing the show, however, I cant wait to pick it up! Many of the new tunes have catchy melodies and arrangements and were very pleasing to my ear after only one listen in a live setting. But this show was more about the experience than anything else. Mr. Byrne has outdone himself with the stage performance he put together for the tour.
The show took place at the Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall (affectionately knows as The Schnitz), which is a beautiful old theater in downtown Portland. On previous runs though town Byrne played at the Roseland Theater, a smaller venue that is not nearly as lovely. The Schnitz is an ornately decorated older theater with beautiful carvings, designs, and great acoustics. It seats just over 2500, so its one of the larger places Byrne has played in recent memory. The views are great from any seat in the house and the large, open stage lends itself well to a big show. And thats exactly what David Byrne had in store for everyone in attendance.
The band was made up of Byrne, two drummers, a bassist, a keyboard player, and three backup vocalists. In addition to the band, he also had three performance artists/dancers along for the ride. Everyone, including Byrne himself, was wearing white. This gave the stage a visually pleasing and continuous feel as the band and dancers gyrated and twirled to the music as it was played. The rhythm section was very solid and held down the steady groove which is so essential for his tunes. But the dancers stole the show. They would glide back and forth in unison or opposition to each other, throwing their arms or kicking their legs in time with the music. At one point they stole the microphone stands from the vocalists and incorporated them into their dance routines. By the end of the song the vocalists were either laying on the stage or leaning on the drum riser while the dancers held the microphones to their mouths so they could sing from their reclined positions. They sped across the stage like ethereal spirits bouncing in time to the music, at one point even sliding around the stage on wheeled office chairs.
There were songs in the performance that featured only the band, as well. And while the crowd enjoyed every song in the show, the response for the Talking Heads songs was definitely the strongest. The show ebbs and flows with slower and quicker songs, big dance numbers, more understated takes on songs, and mixing the older and newer tunes. The later portion of the show takes heavily from the Talking Heads album Remain in Light. Songs like ‘Born Under Punches,’ ‘Crosseyed and Painless,’ and ‘Once in a Lifetime’ were given new life as this band nailed them with gusto while the dancers in white brought a new dimension to these old songs. There were extended instrumental vamps while the dancers did their thing and the crowd was whipped into frenzy. The once politely seated, older crowd became an excited, raucous, and dancing mass by the time this portion of the show came to an end.
What capped the celebration of this show off with an exclamation point was the encore. It contained about 3 or 4 songs including ‘Take Me to the River’ and ‘Everything that Happens.’ But if the song selection for the encore was solid and the dancers were incredible, the real treat came when Byrne invited a band from San Francisco on stage for the last two tunes.
I did not get their name, but it was large group of festive people, again all dressed in white, but they were dancing, waving large banners, playing extra horns and percussion, and most of all dancing and gyrating like crazy people all over the stage. They came up the aisles and paraded onto the stage to end the show with an incredible level of energy during the final encore ‘Burning Down the House.’ The crowd was feeling the energy and everyone in the room was on their feet dancing, smiling, and cheering for this incredible display! There were close to 20 people on stage at this point, and the celebratory vibe was completely infectious. When the song came to its usual abrupt end, the applause and cheering was deafening. Mr. Byrne and company had outdone themselves yet again. I looked over at my smiling girlfriend and could tell she was completely blown away by the performance she just received on her birthday. It was an amazing end to a great day. Hopefully, the ever-evolving minstrel known as David Byrne returns to Portland soon.

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