Primal sophisticate

David Byrne burns down the house with mixture of new and old tunes

David Byrne

David Byrne

Photo By Tom Angel

David Byrne
Laxson Auditorium
Sun., Aug. 22

Singer/keyboardist Lisa Germano (ex-fiddler for John Mellencamp) opened Sunday’s Laxson Auditorium show. Alone and spotlit on a dark stage with a giant blue-lit screen behind her, the dark-haired Germano performed her somewhat melancholy, sometimes circus-like tunes. Her breathy high notes grew on me and made a love song to her deceased cat, Tutti, “Me Amo Tutti,” eerily lovely.

Germano’s lyrical cleverness, use of a foreign tongue and off-beat musicality nicely foreshadowed the musician she was opening for, ex-Talking Head singer/songwriter/guitarist David Byrne.

With his clean-lined, youthful appearance, quirky stage moves and oft times funky-as-all-get-out tight musical presentation, Byrne could be described as a cross between Mr. Rogers and Prince (maybe throw in a touch of Pee Wee Herman, too).

Byrne and his band, all dressed in brown shirts and pants, looking like UPS drivers without the logos, took command of the stage for this maiden performance of the Chico Performances 2004-05 season. Byrne was joined by electric bassist Paul Frazier, Latin percussionist Mauro Refosco, drummer Graham Hawthorne, and the six-piece Tosca Strings from Austin, Texas. The crew put on a long, spellbinding two-encore show that could easily have gone into a third encore if it were up to the audience.

Byrne, whose musical genius has delved into many styles of music over the years, such as his early-'80s avant-garde work with Brian Eno and ballet-score-writing for Twyla Tharp, the MTV-popular wacky-funky rock of the Talking Heads, his world music explorations and his current work with a classical string section, performed pieces from his lengthy career before the backdrop of the giant screen, which changed colors to suit the mood of a particular piece or moment.

One piece, described as being “related to an Ur sonata … a primal utterance,” and that Byrne credited to German-Swiss Dadaist Hugo Ball, founder of the Cabaret Voltaire, was strikingly played before a shocking-red screen. The art world of World War I Europe was evoked more than once that night, as when the giant screen turned to yellow, silhouetting the many percussion instruments, cymbals and drums, bringing to mind the animated silhouette films of German filmmaker Lotte Reininger.

Byrne performed songs from other parts of the world also. During one “sad but not just sad” song with a tango feel, attributed to Cape Verdean singer Cesaria Evora, Byrne, with his back to the audience, even did a gorgeous little butt-twitching dance. His delivery of the aria, “Un Di Felice,” from Verdi’s La Traviata was one of the highlights of the show for me.

About half of the audience, some of them dancing in the aisles most of the night, was there to hear Byrne’s Talking Heads-era stuff. All night long, people were yelling for Byrne to play “Burning Down the House,” made hugely famous by the 1984 Talking Heads film, Stop Making Sense. He obliged some, with a number of stunning versions of such Heads favorites as “Psycho Killer,” “Once in a Lifetime,” “Road to Nowhere” and “This Must Be the Place (Naïve Melody).”

He never played “Burning Down the House.” To his credit, Byrne did not give in to the demand of some very vocal people for his music to be the “same as it ever was.” As a consummate musician who continues to grow and change, Byrne leads his listeners to find the beauty in all music, from the primal to the very sophisticated.