Talking Heads emerged from the New York scene in 1975 and were one of my favourite bands from the early eighties. I particularly loved their trio of albums Fear of Music (1979), Remain in Light (1980) and Speaking in Tongues (1983). The band was dominated by the brooding presence of David Byrne and his 1981 collaboration with Brian Eno (who was a big force behind Fear of Music) My Life in the Bush of Ghosts was a seminal influence on later sampling and still one of my all time top 10 favourite albums.
Living in Ireland at the time I was always on the lookout to see if they were playing anywhere close live but in those pre-Internet days I don’t recall ever having the opportunity. The closest I came was Jonathan Demme’s film version of their live album Stop Making Sense with David Byrne’s Big Suit the showstopper of that performance. Though I liked the singles from Little Creatures (1985) “And She Was” and “Road to Nowhere” I didn’t think the band was as interesting in the late 1980s and apparently neither did they breaking up in 1991.
I thought then I would never see Byrne or the band in all their glory. It wasn’t until just after I posted my piece about Eno-Byrne earlier this year did a friend point out that Byrne was touring Australia in November. Though he missed out Brisbane, he was playing the Gold Coast Convention Centre and that was close enough for me. I’d been looking forward to the gig ever since and I was not to be disappointed.
From the moment Byrne comes on stage and sits at a table to pick up a sculpted skull, it was captivating entertainment on many levels. I half expected him to break into Shakespeare with “Alas poor Yorick” but instead it was the song Here from his latest album American Vertigo. “Here there is something we call hallucination / Is it the truth or merely a description?” Who knows, but it was a tantalising opener.
For that song the band was off stage but they soon joined him in similar-suited splendour (all minus footwear) as he turned back the clock to Fear of Music with the classic I Zimbra. It was the song that launched Byrne on a career-long fascination with African music and it was the first excuse for the seated audience in the Coast to get out of their chairs and start rocking the arena. It was American Utopia with African roots.
The stage set was minimal but with 12 performers on it, it didn’t matter – there was always something interesting going on. Sometimes it was the two fabulous dancers with their elaborate choreography that Byrne would either join or just look on in delight. Sometimes it was the six-piece percussion group setting a pounding beat as they strutted across the stage. Sometimes it was the keyboardist carrying the music all by himself.
But mostly it was Byrne himself, now 66 years old, but careering across the large set with the energy and intensity of someone half his age. American Utopia released in January was his first solo recording in 18 years. He played several tracks from the album including Everybody’s Coming to My House. He told the story that when he sings it he worries about everyone being in his house, but when he heard a choir sing it, they infused it with positivity and a genuine sense that everyone was welcome in the house. It fits in with a larger project Byrne is putting together called Reasons to be Cheerful. I was expecting a morose artist but he was surprisingly upbeat and funny.
I also expected a performance infused with art – and Byrne did not disappoint. It was part stage show, part dance routine, part theatre, part performance and all captivating. At one point all 12 of them pirouetted perfectly like a marching band and it was glorious to watch.
The performance was enhanced by terrific use of lighting and shadows. The group bounced around untethered by wires or standing instruments but there was always method in their madness. Byrne was the star but each contributed to a dazzling whole.
The new music was great. But what everyone there wanted to hear – and I was no exception was the classic Talking Heads tracks. And Byrne was more than happy to oblige. Born Under Punches, Once in a Lifetime, Slippery People, Burning Down the House, This Must be the Place, and Blind, all had people racing to the front of the stage and getting their boogie on. Who could resist such great dance music?
Byrne and the band played two encore sets and finished with a modern day protest song Hell You Talmbout. Written in 2015 by Janelle Monáe it asks what the hell are you talking about and lists the names of black Americans killed by police or in race-related violence, asking people to say the names of the dead. It wasn’t Talking Heads but it was a powerful conclusion to a great concert. Hell you talmbout – this was one of the best gigs I’ve ever attended and like nothing I’ve seen before and likely ever again. He’s still alive but, David Byrne, won’t you say his name.