David Byrne- El Rey Theater, Los Angeles, 6/01
Friday June 1st was far more than just another jaunt up to L.A. for a show. This day in history marked a musical milestone for me. . I joined 771 others, crammed into the gorgeous, cozy, EL Rey theater to see the final leg of (ex-Talking Heads front man) David Byrne’s eight American tour dates, before heading over seas.
As I was walking into the El Rey all I could manage to say was, “I can’t believe we’re going to see David Byrne.” This is one of the cornerstones of my musical faith. Byrne, Miles, (happy birthday), and Trey pretty much makes up my holy trinity, so needless to say I was ecstatic. The setting was perfect, a small L.A. club equipped with ominous blue tinged chandeliers above, and a red glow surrounding the floor below. The crowd was diverse, but definitely wreaked of Los Angeles. Mostly older well dressed men, between 30-50, a few “heads”, and about as many loudly dressed mohawk totting rockers.
The tour began on May 21st in support of Byrne’s latest album, “Look Into The Eye Ball” which he began work on about two years ago in the small Spanish town of Andalusia. The heart of the work is found in Byrne’s desire to, as he put it, “include the warm, lyrical, beautiful, emotional sounds and associations of strings and orchestral parts with groove music and beats for the body. I want to move people to dance and cry at the same time.” Yup, that sounds like the David Byrne I grew up worshiping.
He strolled on stage with his smooth, deeply soulful bass player, Paul Frazier, both wearing gas station attendants gear with the Luka Bop name, (his record label), on the chest. He began by telling the crowd they were going to play, “Some new stuff, some old stuff, and maybe some stuff that is neither.” From there Byrne vocally slipped into a new song from the Eye Ball album, “The Revolution.” Immediately the overwhelming notion is how amazing this man sounds. I expected the trademark David Byrne voice to have lost a step, but was I ever mistaken. He sounded incredibly full, energized, loud and clear. Following the opener Byrne took to his acoustic guitar and served up an old Talking Heads classic, “(Nothing But) Flowers” which obviously pleased the crowd.By this time the other two members of Byrne’s percussive quartet were making waves of their own. David Hilliard was responsible for the “beats” Byrne desired as he slammed on the skins. Leaving an array of colorful South American influxes by the percussion guru Mauro Refosco who danced between congas, timbales, vibes, shakers, and noisemakers. At one point Refosco was rubbing two sanding blocks together creating a perfect Byrne sound that seemed to epitomize the chafe of our society.
While still caressing one of his two acoustic guitars we heard Byrne run through the Latin number “Gods Child” which was written in L.A. for a movie score with deceased Latin pop star Selena. This led into the classic “Buck Naked” causing the crowd to loosen up a bit and get the energy flowing.
At this point Byrne picked up his hollow body for the first time treating us to an absolutely ripping “Once In A Lifetime.” As cheesy as it may sound, it wasn’t, it just fit that place and time. It truly was a once in a lifetime opportunity to see David Byrne. And as much as I expected to hear the Talking Heads staple, the veins popping out of Byrne’s neck, and the sweat pouring off his brow gave the song the genuine feel it needed to be as good as it was.
Not only did Byrne’s voice sound impeccable his (often underrated) guitar playing was sleek, rhythmic, at times searing, and at others soothing, but always amazing. He seems to have an ingrained sense of rhythm coupled with harmony, which never ceases to inspire awe. While moving from songs off the new album to older masterpieces like “And She Was” his band proved to exemplify professionalism as they effortlessly turned on a dime, and hugged the lines that Byrne drew with his music.
About half way through the show Byrne filled the vacant space on stage that was obviously designated for a string ensemble, with members who I believe are part of the L.A. symphony. David brought out four violins and two cellos in order to add the “warm, lyrical, beautiful, emotional sounds and associations of strings and orchestral parts” on top of the dance rhythms being laid down by his amazingly tight band. And as one might assume with anything Byrne does, it worked. The blend was perfect, moving through soaring vocal numbers into instrumentally based tracks. “The Florist” a song written for a German opera proved to be a highlight of the set leading into a sick jam with layered rhythms being peeled away to reveal tight, shredding violin work. The clean sound produced by the ten musicians on stage was simply marvelous. While playing staccato notes by plucking the strings of the violin, the band followed David into a set closer off Look Into The Eye Ball, entitled “Like Humans Do.”
Byrne began the encore in electric style with an eerie song off his solo REI MOMO album, “The Dream Police.” As “The Dream Police” slipped into a dance number the disco lights began spinning, and a familiar song was begging to come out, but didn’t show its face until you heard the words, “I wanna dance with somebody.” Yes David Byrne took the Whitney Houston hit, and turned into a song you might actually want to hear. Byrne was obviously into it, swinging and swaying leading the band into a nice little jam segment highlighted by some slapping, deeply groove oriented bass work by Frazier, and classic fluttering, wavy, wind swept vocals sliding in and out of consciousness by the man himself.
After leaving the stage for a second time it appeared that the screaming crowd might get one more taste of David due to the fact that the accompanying strings were still on stage. A few moments into the chants, yells, whistles, and stomps, Byrne came out for one more exquisite piece of socially laced work. The song, again off the new album, was entitled “The Accident.” The disturbing vocal effort displayed classic Byrne stage presence as his eyes dilated with the music, and his robotic body moved in surprise and fear of the audience. As Byrne drew comparisons of a failed relationship to a car crash the poignant social commentary that made him such an underground superstar was as potent as ever.
This notion of commenting both directly and more subtly about the sickening state of society has been a focal point of David Byrne since his days at CBGB’s, and his latest piece of work is certainly no exception. Byrne stated that “Look Into The Eye Ball. . . reflects both the record’s pre-occupation with human relations and it’s slightly off-kilter view of the same.” The entire evening, from classics to debuts, had that slicing Byrne social aura dripping off of them.
If there were any shortcomings it would have had to be the similarity of set lists to the previous shows throughout the states. But I think this opinion has been ingrained into my soul by a style of music that I tend to frequent which prides itself in a unique, totally different show every night. As the extremely diverse group of people that one would expect to see at a David Byrne show funneled out of the theater one thing seemed to tie these sweaty bodies together; the unified notion that we had all witnessed something truly special. But I must assert that it wasn’t simply a night holding onto the past, rehashing hits of old, it was a look into the history, the present, and the future of a genius that will continue to Byrne bright.