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Published: 2005/07/07
by Jesse Jarnow

David Byrne, Central Park Summerstage, NYC- 6/29

NYC ROLL-TOP: The Mayor of Hep New York

The evening of David Byrne's performance at Central Park's Summerstage was one of those drizzly Manhattan nights that can only be appreciated as lovely if considered as a break in the wretched June humidity that often (as my roommate observed) makes New York streets feel like the bottom of an ocean. Passing up the wide (and almost empty) Literary Walk to the Rumsey Playfield — site of Summerstage — distilled sunbeams sagged through the massive oaks, romantic European light cast on statues of William Shakespeare, Robert Burns, and others.

Coming through the lushness, the sounds of Pink Martini's wickedly arranged, semi-ironic, occasionally bland orchestral pop seemed fairly out of place — at least until one encountered the crowd there to see Byrne. With a mindblowing blog, an ear-expanding web radio station (this week: all Italian pop! whee!), high profile collaborations with current indie faves Arcade Fire (among others), and — most importantly — recent albums that retain their charm, Byrne has emerged as something of a People's Champion. Throughout the night, Byrne made a case for his continued relevance by showing signs of adapting to the New Singles Age.

Though Byrne — accompanied by the Tosca Strings, as well as his four-year-old band — certainly didn't ignore 2004's full-length Grown Backwards, the emphasis was on individual songs. Byrne went to great lengths to introduce them, keeping them distinct modules: a number from a movie soundtrack, a recent collaboration with the Thievery Corporation (the beat-driven "Heart’s A Lonely Hunter"), some Italian pop, a left field cover (Jimi Hendrix’s psychedelic "One Rainy Wish"), a piece for a Twyla Tharpe dance suite (the pulsing "What A Day That Was"). And then there were the Talking Heads’ tunes, which — judging by Byrne’s journal entries — are both a source of joy and a weight around his neck.

Certainly, the crowd was excited to hear them (as we always are) because they are great songs. Byrne's band's take on Speaking In Tongues’ "This Must Be The Place (Naive Melody)," with Tina Weymouth’s circular guitar part arranged for Mauro Refosco’s marimba, was (same as it ever was) breathtaking, while Fear of Music’s "Life During Wartime" remained as prescient as it has been for the past four years. They are clearly Heads numbers that mean something to Byrne, as opposed to simply greatest hits. But they pose questions of setlist strategy, as the appearance of any Heads nostalgia clearly ramps the room’s energy to a place of heightened expectation.

It was 25 years ago this summer, at Central Park's famous Wollman Ice Rink, that Byrne and the Talking Heads debuted their expanded Afro-funk mini-orchestra, which would eventually result in the mondo-conceptual Robert Wilson-inspired Stop Making Sense, a stage piece Byrne has to had to live in the considerable shadow of ever since. Byrne’s newfound curatorial/professorial leanings could finally be his way out. With the inclusion of Lamb Chop’s "The Man Who Loved Beer" and Bizet’s "Au Fond du Temple Saint" in the set (and on Grown Backwards), plus his other covers, it’s easy to imagine that his next album might be a record of other people’s material, and that Byrne will continue to employ/explore his genially befuddled stage manner as a hook on future tours.

He's still working on it, though. In the rain — which could have been a catalyst for a fully transcendent experience — the band never quite reached the ecstatic. The arc of the set stilted near the end. Following a churning "Life During Wartime," Byrne introduced the McCullough Sons of Thunder, who are to trombone what Robert Randolph is to pedal steel. As an opening act, the Sons of Thunder would have been magnificent. If they'd played a song or two on their own and then joined Byrne and his band for a few numbers — as the Hungry Marching Band did on the west coast— they might've been the missing piece to put the performance over the top. While it was a gracious move on Byrne's part to offer them the last half-hour of his strictly cufewed stage-time — and to even help set up their mics himself — it was also decidedly anti-climactic (not to mention confusing for those who were expecting hum to encore). Perhaps he was doing self-imposed penance for playing so many Talking Heads tunes.

I guess I gotta go see David Byrne again 'til he gets it right. Dang.

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