By Mark Guarino
David Byrne was once famously called a rock’s renaissance man on the cover of Time magazine for his forays into music, film, dance, theatre and publishing. Even when Talking Heads withered away in the late ‘80s, Byrne’s artistic pursuits stacked and he became known more as an art dabbler who also occasionally releases albums.
But at the Skyline Stage at Navy Pier, the second of two sold-out nights, Byrne reclaimed his stature as a premier rhythm maker. Just as he morphed from an awkward and lanky art student into a wiggly chieftain of a polyrhythmic big band during the course of the Heads, Byrne at age 52 was comfortable and in command of the dance party. The two-hour, 22-song show was amply furnished with those Talking Heads songs that were primed to burn. All in all, it was fabulous fun.
Accompanied by the Tosca Strings, a string sextet from Austin, Byrne opened the show with songs from his recent album, “Grown Backwards” (Nonesuch). The new songs lacked the rhythmic fire of the later setlist, but their detailed chamber pop arrangements were adorned with nuances. The xylophone lines played by percussionist Mauro Refosco bobbed and weaved with Byrne’s guitar, their playful interplay a kind of delicate dance.
Although more subdued, the songs filtered Byrne’s folksy humor through big issue statements. Contemplating the finality of life, he sang, “another Elvis will not come along/he got wasted but it’s alright” (“Finite=Alright”). He also took the wicked pleasure of slamming the brakes after “Once in a Lifetime” for “Un di Felice,” a Verdi aria he sung in Italian.
There were no big suits, feathered costumes or props that popped up on previous tours. Instead, his band was neatly decked in brown shirt and pants sets, making them look like they stepped off a UPS truck. There were brief reminders, however, of “Stop Making Sense,” the 1984 concert film that cemented Talking Heads as a visual, as well as musical force.
Uniform colors dramatically flooded the stage and lit up the back wall. Byrne often jogged in place, and burst into pogo jumping. He flowed onto the stage backwards and circled around it, arriving front and center on cue. At times when standing in place, his face was lit in a stark stadium light as the rest of the band went black.
It was subtle enough to recall the film’s visual strengths even though at times his three-piece band and string section could not fill out the sound as the mid-‘80s Heads, that at that point, had expanded with six additional players.
Still, his band tweaked the arrangements of “Life During Wartime,” “Blind,” “What a Day That Was” into hustling funk. As much as his slinky legs are, by now, part of his oeuvre, Byrne once more demonstrated his gift is showing just how much buttoned down Middle America needs to shake, shake, shake.