Sunday 19 April 2009

David Byrne at Royal Festival Hall - 13th April 2009

The choice of venue can be important. It’s about getting the balance right between a space being suitable for a performer to put on their optimum show and an environment that allows the audience to get maximum enjoyment from that performance.

So, while saying from the outset that tonight’s show by David Byrne at the Royal Festival Hall is an absolute unqualified triumph, the restrictions of this venue upon the audience lead to some strange reactions on their part. Of which more later.

David Byrne has always known that a gig should be an event, an opportunity to have fun with the pantheon of work rather than just turn up, play ‘Psycho Killer’ and take the money. The mischievous spirit that has in the past led to his famous ‘Stop Making Sense’ outsize suit, or collaborations with the likes of Celia Cruz, Twyla Tharp or X-Press 2, is given full reign this evening.

Taking the rather dry title “Plays the music of David Byrne and Brian Eno” Byrne turns this premise into a non-stop all singing, all-dancing joyous celebration of the best bits from his entire career.

The stage is huge and bare, the basic band comprising a bassist, two percussionists, an occasional keyboard and three snappily attired backing singers. All are dressed from head to toe in brilliant white, as is the dapper silver-haired Byrne, twitching behind his guitar.

The band start off with ‘Strange Overtones’, one of the highlights from the recent “Everything That Happens Will Happen Today” album. The sound (as you might expect from a venue such as this) is perfect. As they play, Byrne is joined by a trio of dancers, who perform stunningly physical gymnastics throughout this and subsequent tracks.

Although Byrne has only overtly collaborated with Brian Eno on two albums, the erstwhile former Roxy Music maestro also produced Talking Heads during the period when they enjoyed their biggest artistic and commercial success. This gives David Byrne a chance to dip liberally into the best songs from ‘Fear of Music’ and ‘Remain in Light’.

‘I Zimbra’ is all martial drums and marching, ‘Air’ is a breathy sigh and ‘Heaven’ just as the title implies. The choreography is frantic, with performers often dragging Byrne and his singers into ever more outlandish routines.

The band even performs a couple of tracks from ‘My Life in the Bush of Ghosts’ a record on which all the vocals were found recordings. Tonight these tracks are sung by Byrne himself, who jokes “My name is Dave. I shall be your sampler for this evening.”

A trilogy of songs from ‘Remain in Light’ and the audience cannot contain itself any further – pouring down the front from all corners of the auditorium. “Once in Life Time” is spectacular, ‘Born Under Punches’ equally so. Byrne joins in with the wild dancers, flailing his guitar as they leap over both him and each other.

Once up, the audience doesn’t know what to do with itself during the relatively quieter moments. This causes some friction amongst those who want to sit down and can’t see. A couple in front of me argue and storm out.

The mood is such that the band are never going to get away with a single encore and tonight we get four, including a blazing version of “Burning Down The House” featuring Byrne and the band sporting white tutus, for no reason that can be clearly defined.

And finally, finally, despite all claims to the contrary, the band are joined by a bald figure in a white suit. It’s not Dr Evil, it’s the mighty Brian Eno himself, and he is lauded to the rafters. As well he should be.

This has been an exhilarating performance, which has featured one of music’s greatest innovators on stunning form. A towering evening

[Sorry for the delay with this – my computer had a fainting fit and has only just revived]

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