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The name of this man is David Byrne: Byrne performs at the Egg.

Photo: Martin Benjamin

Ain’t No Foolin’ Around

By David Greenberger

David Byrne

The Egg, Nov. 5

 

Over the course of more than 30 years, David Byrne has managed a rare feat. He has succeeded in the popular music marketplace but has not been trapped by it, maintaining his stance as an artist. His latest tour finds him playing venues that, for the most part, are smaller than what he could fill, but that allow him to maintain tighter control over the sound and present his 11-piece troupe on worthy stages.

Last week’s concert at the Egg was the night after the election, an event Byrne acknowledged with his opening words, “I woke up this morning to a different America.” This was met by cheers from the sold-out crowd, as further comments revealed that he and his international band had been receiving happy and congratulatory e-mails from friends and family around the world.

The concert was titled “Songs of David Byrne and Brian Eno,” and it opened with “Strange Overtones,” from the new Everything That Happens Will Happen Today. It’s a testament to the clearly delineated sound mix, and to the smart pacing of the set, that eight songs from the new collaborative album with Eno were performed, especially since the album is currently available only as a download, and will not be released as a physical CD until later this month.

With the second number, the full cast was assembled across the stage when the tour’s three dancers emerged to the opening notes of “I Zimbra.” Byrne on guitar was part of a five-piece band (keyboardist, bassist, drummer, percussionist). Three singers stood to his right, adding percussion and occasional acoustic guitar. And everyone was dressed in white—not matching outfits, but the varied possibilities of white clothing.

Given the evening’s theme, all of the dozen and a half selections were from works in which Eno participated. Besides the new release, these songs first appeared on My Life in the Bush of Ghosts, The Catherine Wheel and the three Talking Heads albums Eno produced (More Songs About Buildings and Food, Fear of Music and Remain in Light).

The varied crowd was a mix of well-heeled professionals and purposefully casual hipsters. The main thing most appeared to have in common with each other, as well as with Byrne, was having been born in the ‘50s. Beyond that, there were significant differences, largely in the realm of art vs. nostalgia. Two-thirds of the way into concert, audience members were encouraged to their feet, and unfortunately they remained standing for the rest of the night. I could see some in attendance re-creating Byrne moves from 20 years ago, most notably his hitting-myself-in-the-forehead from “Once in a Lifetime” and seen in the film Stop Making Sense. This is where Byrne the artist comes into focus. He is more about reconsidering, reinventing and reinterpreting than simply re-creating. As he sang in “Psycho Killer,” “Say something once, why say it again?”

Byrne is an artist, but he also understands the dynamics of showmanship. From the beginning he’s known to surround his tentative manner and slight physique with funky rhythms and theatrical flair. Every aspect of this current tour is perfectly considered and executed. The showman in him made sure it was an unforgettable night, while the artist elevated it to an even more potent level, because the next time he comes back he’ll do something different.

The Boy Next Door

Jim White

Mass MoCA, North Adams, Mass., Nov. 8

Jim White is now more than a decade into a recording career that didn’t start until he’d already turned 40. So it’s no surprise that the focus of his music is not the stuff of a young man’s hopes and dreams. His songs are full of questions, longings, regrets, and the concerns of a middle-aged man. Last Saturday at Mass MoCA he was singing and playing his guitar, fronting a trio with Pat Hargon on electric guitar and Byron Isaacs on bass and background vocals.

In a curious bit of reverse engineering, White started the night by talking before the first song and offering up somewhat oblique observations. By the end of the set, some 90 minutes later, he’d stripped away the idiosyncratic constructions in favor of heartfelt wishes of happiness for everyone in attendance. I’m not sure if this was by design or just his wandering way, but had it been the other way around, we’d have been getting to know him upon a more traditional foundation. The night’s tilt may have been exacerbated by the intimacy in his delivery being in conflict with the room’s acoustics, which made it hard to make out all that he was saying and singing. But hearing adjusts, and things became clearer by dint of familiarity. The real turning point was at about the half-hour mark when he removed his tractor-driver style baseball cap, which had been casting his face in shadows. It was as if by making his head available to be seen, his voice came into sharper focus as well.

White’s songs are draped in the Southern gothic hues of religion and redemption. These are then scuffed by the weather-worn shoes of folk art and situated on the floor of a drunkard’s homemade shack, with its exclusively unsquare corners. However, given that layering, his songs are really quite traditional. Sure, Jesus drives into town in a motor home, but in terms of melody and verse-chorus-verse construction, they’re downright catchy. His voice is free of any Waitsian barbs or guttural punctuation, making him sound all the more normal as he delivers some of his more fractured lyrics. He sounds like a long-lost neighbor boy, now grown up, but into the man that it somehow makes sense he became.

—David Greenberger


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