David – still Byrning down the house

By Peter McNamara

Picture courtesy of Red Hand Records/ Creative Commons

Is it possible for an artist to stay creative and relevant into later middle age? Can a 66-year-old rock star really hope to keep pace with his younger peers? 

Watching David Byrne at the Three Arena on October 24th, the man seems a marvel. Every other week there’s news of another comeback tour or reunion show. Even U2, a band that has retained admirable re-inventive energy through their long career, recently embarked on a Joshua Tree re-hash project. In this landscape, Byrne is as a stark exception. 

The temptation to cash-in and rest on laurels won appears to have no hold on the former Talking Heads frontman. In Dublin, and in venues across the globe, he has been mounting a brand-new show full of challenge, risk, and that rarer thing, joy. 

Since leaving Talking Heads, Byrne has released many albums, recorded several more hit singles, and worked with acclaimed artists in numerous forms. Over the last few years, however, he seems to be riding along an especially prolific wave. His 2012 Love This Giant album and tour with St. Vincent, one of the most celebrated musicians of her generation, garnered huge acclaim. His meticulous book How Music Works did likewise. And now, with his 2018 album American Utopia, Byrne seems to be reaching a peak in this phase of his career.  

Thankfully for those at the Three Arena this October, his recent creative prowess has come with no lack of performative vigour. Like the man himself, the stage show for this latest tour is utterly unique. Working with Annie-B Parson, the choreographer behind those theatrical rock extravaganzas he staged with St. Vincent, Byrne has crafted a show which he says is “The most ambitious I’ve done since those we filmed for Stop Making Sense”. 

That 1984 concert film is a landmark. To rival that achievement is no mean feat. Somehow, at 66, Byrne has done it. 

A Band Apart

From the off, we know we’re in for something different. On the wide stage at the Three Arena there is only a small school desk, upon which rests a pink plastic brain. The house lights drop. Byrne appears in a grey suit and with his trademark quiff of bright white hair. As he walks across to sit at the desk we see he is barefoot. Music plays. Byrne sings. He’s amplified by a discreet radio mic, as if from nowhere. 

The simplicity of the set-up creates intimacy. He gives a tender rendition of Here, a song on his new album about the lobes of the brain, and their use and misuse by humankind. 

Before the last bars settle, the lights darken again; bass and synth pump; a great backdrop of silvery chain-mail curtains descend and out troop twelve musicians. They’re dressed in the same grey suit as Byrne and walk barefoot like him. They seem some wonderful marching band. Each musician – be they a guitarist, a keyboardist, or drummer – moves with their instrument mounted to their body, free of any wire or stand. Strobe lights flash as these men and women criss-cross the stage. The music builds and Byrne kicks into his 2001 smash-hit Lazy. 

Next, we get our first taste of Talking Heads, with I Zimbra. The musicians march back and forth in different combinations, creating a tribal effect, that is also inclusive. Each one smiles broadly as they perform, and this doesn’t seem contrived. The show is something everyone in the audience is invited to take part in. I Zimbra is followed by another Talking Heads’ classic, Slippery People, and with this, the gig has truly begun. 

The set list features songs from Byrne’s solo career, his work with St. Vincent, and his time with Talking Heads. It makes for a well-rounded experience. Byrne seems to respect the achievements of his past and the expectations of his fans; yet he matches this with a hunger for the unexplored. This combination gives energy to his rendition of older material while adding context to his newer creations. And be the music new or old, Byrne’s voice holds up throughout. 

Joy and Pain and Back Again 

There is much variety. During I Should Watch TV, a poignant song about the media, and the loss of interpersonal connection, Byrne is alone at the right of the stage, singing into a blue TV-screen light, casting a great shadow on the row of musicians behind. During Road to Nowhere, the twelve musicians loop around the stage in one syncopated conga line. Depending on what they’re playing, these musicians-come-dancers either move like wounded bodies or prance and leap about. 

Byrne mentions the last time he played Dublin, and has to ask the crowd, “is this The Point?” Before he plays the stand-out track from his new album, Everybody’s Coming to My House, he draws attention to the diversity among his band, and the value of immigration and immigrants. 

With that, the upbeat night takes on a powerful undertone. The song Bullet adds to this mood. Byrne stands in the middle of a reddened stage, swinging an industrial lightbulb, and mournfully repeats the refrain, “the path of the bullet wasn’t stopped.”

When he plays This Must Be the Place, and Once in a Lifetime, those two Talking Heads songs which might be his greatest achievement, everyone in the arena is on their feet, dancing and singing along. And the band are equally as enraptured. Byrne’s performance of these songs is full of commitment. The applause that follows lasts some time. 

The energy doesn’t dip for Burning Down the House. With the final note, the lights fade and the stage is cleared. Immediately the crowd starts calling for an encore.

Byrne and his band duly return, and perform The Great Curve, another high-energy Talking Heads tune. Then comes a surprise. Byrne says he’s going to play a cover, by Janelle Monae. The band lays a rhythm that seems to mix hip-hop with military marching. They’re no longer smiling. There’s an air of intent. 

The song is called Hell You Talmbout. The lyrics aren’t much to sing along to: they simply list the names of innocent, murdered black Americans. We hear of Walter Scott, Jerame Reid, Phillip White, Eric Garner, and many more. Byrne and the band sing to us of the wrongfully killed. Each one is followed by the refrain: “say his name, say his name”. When it’s over the crowd cheer, but not in the same way they had been. It’s a fitting end to an original, uncompromising show. 

A Reason to be Cheerful 

Byrne played the hits, he played the new stuff, and he managed to make several political points along the way, without banging his audience over the head with them. The success of the night and of this latest stage show must be down to the personality of the man himself. He is unaffected as a person and untiring as an artist. And he seems well aware of the responsibilities that come with his fame.

For the last year, he has been compiling his good-news encyclopaedia website, Reasons to be Cheerful. He seeks out positive stories and movements from the places he visits on tour, and records them, to hearten and mobilise activists and ordinary people around the world. The focus is on local, community-driven actions and campaigns that can be copied and scaled-up. 

True to form, when he landed in Dublin he researched recent goings-on, and came across the October 16th Climate Action Now protest, organised by the Dublin Eco-Feminist Coven. This protest was organised after a harrowing UN report gave the powers-that-be 12 years to turn our current situation around.

Byrne took to Facebook to celebrate the work of these grassroots activists, and spread their efforts to his wider network. “It’s inspiring to see young people taking action,” he wrote, “to protest the lack of climate change reform in Ireland. What other local initiatives in energy and climate should I know about? What other stories of civil engagement in Dublin are making you smile?”

Byrne is an old master who has never stopped engaging. His relevance is hard-earned and was palpable at the Three Arena on October 24th.