David Byrne at the Royal Festival Hall, London

Joe Hyam 9 June 2009

This ain’t the Mudd Club, or C.B.G.B. / I ain’t got time for that now”. This was the Royal Festival Hall. Comfortable, clinical, all-seated, far removed from the pulsating, avant-garde, restless sphere that the music of Byrne and Eno so singularly inhabits. But David Byrne and his band did not let that hinder them. Performing ‘Songs of Byrne and Eno’ as headliner of the Ether Festival, Byrne drew together a crowd-pleasing set list, interspersing choice cuts from the Byrne/Eno collaboration albums with a bevy of Talking Heads classics.

As with Talking Heads in their heyday, the songs were not just played, they were performed. As his band rumbled from recent gospel-funk single ‘Strange Overtones’ into the storming afro beat of ‘I Zimbra’, Byrne was joined onstage by three dancers who provided an exuberant, engaging spectacle throughout the set; an endearing, indie-oddball take on Pan’s People, perhaps, or a meticulously choreographed troupe of Napoleon Dynamites. The band, dressed entirely in white to match Byrne and his dancers, locked firmly into a rousing groove.

Byrne cut a striking figure front and centre: lean, silver haired and vigorous. During an early lull between songs a fan evidently overwhelmed by his mere presence gave a loud moan of, ‘My God, you’re beautiful!’ there was palpable agreement in the ensuing laughter. Punching out licks from a pristine white Stratocaster, Byrne’s vocals impressed throughout: commanding and forceful for ‘Houses in Motion’, artfully restrained for Al Green cover ‘Take Me To The River’, shrill and playful for ‘Born Under Punches’. For tracks taken from My Life In The Bush Of Ghosts – an album innovatively constructed around ‘found sounds’ – he recreated numerous vocal samples live; cheerful throughout the evening, at this point he quipped, ‘Hi, I’ll be your sampler for tonight. My name’s Dave.’

Halfway through the show, the audience – urbane, respectful, largely approaching middle age – was finally stripped of its self-restraint. Some heard this change coming, rushing down to the front the instant they recognised the stately opening bass line to ‘Cross-eyed and Painless’, as it tantalized, gathered tension and expectation, and then exploded into life as gloriously as it ever did.

A towering rendition of ‘Once in a Lifetime’ followed, and the crowd thronged in front of the stage. Seats vacated, shapes were thrown. An air of triumph and liberation took over. Irony was manifest as the audience bellowed the chorus to ‘Life During Wartime’: This ain’t no party, this ain’t no disco/This ain’t no foolin’ around. ‘The Great Curve’ maintained the momentum, preceding a euphoric encore of ‘Burning Down The House’ – though not strictly a song of Byrne and Eno, by this point it didn’t matter.
All of which would have constituted a fitting climax to the evening, were it not for a final moment of sentimental significance. Gently harmonising their way through closing ballad ‘Everything That Happens Will Happen Today’, the band seemed as surprised as everyone else when they looked round to see a familiar figure, also dressed in white, stride onto the stage to lend his own sonorous tones to the swell. Fleeting as it was, the audience was enraptured to witness a rare, unheralded onstage reunion between David Byrne and Brian Eno. Both appeared a little overwhelmed by the ovation they received, Byrne modestly stepping out of the spotlight, Eno smiling contentedly, while musicians, dancers and audience alike celebrated one of the most fruitful and influential musical partnerships of recent times.

Joe Hyam