Same as he ever was
by Seth Rogovoy

(POUGHKEEPSIE, N.Y.) – What’s David Byrne doing performing in opera houses on his current “My Backwards Life” tour?

Well for one, he’s tackling an aria by Verdi from “La Traviata,” one of two arias he sings on his terrific new CD, “Grown Backwards” (Nonesuch).

Secondly, on his current tour the art-rock singer-songwriter and Talking Heads founder performs with a stripped-down group – just a bassist, a drummer and a percussionist – accompanied by the Tosca Strings, a six-member chamber ensemble from Austin.

The setting on Sunday night may have been the Bardavon, a beautifully-restored, 19th-century opera house, but well before Byrne sang words to the opposite effect in a rollicking version of “Life During Wartime” during the first of two encores, he had transformed it into a party, a disco, a Mudd Club and a CBGBs.

Longtime fans of Byrne know that he can be a spectacular performer, especially when he mixes up whatever new material he is premiering with vintage songs from Talking Heads. The fact that the new songs on “Grown Backwards” are some of the strongest of his solo career, and that Byrne peppered them with a generous selection of favorites from his back catalog, just made Sunday’s show even better, and likely to rank at the top of the list of the best concerts of 2004.

As always, Byrne’s show was impeccably curated, from the costumes to the lighting to the movement to the arrangements. Byrne has always approached everything he does with the eye of a multimedia artist, and no details were overlooked. Decked out in shades of brown that were carried out through the lighting and even the instruments – the guitars, violins, Mauro Refosco’s array of percussion instruments – Byrne was his wiry, spindly self, a gregarious frontman wiggling his impossibly narrow hips on rearranged versions of classics like “I Zimbra,” “Once in a Lifetime” and “Road to Nowhere.”

The chamber-rock arrangements were used to best effect on “The Other Side of This Life” and a revamped “Psycho Killer,” which had an “Eleanor Rigby”-type feel to it before it exploded in a metallic guitar solo by Byrne. Other than Byrne’s guitar and an electric bass, the entire ensemble consisted of acoustic percussion and strings, but there was no sacrifice of power or impact in the thundering funk of old songs like “Blind” and the more recent dance-floor hit, “Lazy.”

Byrne was an incredibly alert, focused and engaged presence, always in command even while he was tackling the challenge of singing in five languages – Spanish, Italian, Portuguese, English and Hugo Ball’s dada gibberish that provided the lyrics to “I Zimbra” – over the course of the evening. He has apparently studied the craft of voice, too; the quality of his voice is the same, but he exhibited a new level of power and stamina on a tango ballad he learned from Cesaria Evora and the Verdi aria, “Un di Felice, Eterea.”

Byrne also reminded us how a few carefully honed moves and gestures can pack on iconic punch. This isn’t news to anyone familiar with the art of dance, but it certainly is lost on the lion’s share of rock performers. But Byrne sparingly used a few deft movements – sashaying backwards almost like a hovering ghost during “Mr. Pitiful,” running in place during “This Must Be the Place,” jerking his head while barking out the faux-televangelist shpil of “Once in a Lifetime” – to communicate as much visually as he does through sound.

If all of this makes the concert seem somewhat calculated, that’s not at all how it felt. Rather, Byrne knows how to establish the parameters within which a concert will play out, and then leaves room for spontaneity within those lines. It helps that he keeps to a minimalist aesthetic and he surrounds himself with top-notch accompanists. That at age 52 he seems to be having an incredible amount of fun while being vitally engaged in his art and at peace with himself all just adds to the sense of confidence he exudes, a confidence which is infectious and allows the audience to surrender itself to the performer.

Argentine singer-songwriter Juana Molina, accompanied by Alejandro, warmed up the crowd with her set of original compositions that made her out to be a south of the border Suzanne Vega.

Tickets are still available for Byrne’s concert at the Calvin Theatre in Northampton (413-586-8686) on June 6.

[This review originally appeared in the Berkshire Eagle on May 19, 2004. Copyright Seth Rogovoy 2004. All rights reserved.]

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