with Jim White
House Of Blues, Orlando • 10.30.97
Ever since I sat, dazzle-eyed, macking on popcorn in the old Picwood Theater watching Stop Making Sense, I’ve had a particular fascination with David Byrne.
I’ve always had a particular fascination with run-on sentences, as well, and that comes from reading way too much Ogden Nash as a kid. But I digress. And career-wise, so does this Byrne guy.
Sort of like a 16th century balladeer with Attention Deficit Disorder, he wanders through musical territories like a pioneer — hollering that distinctive yelp and calling for someone to join him in the act. His former cronies, the Talking Heads, were mere window-dressing for his brand of cryptic musings — which is probably why they’ve blown donkeys in just about every venture they’ve attempted without him.
With visions of a big suit and head-slapping schtick in my mental file libraries, I enthusiastically awaited the House Of Blues show and prepared for anything.
Opening act Jim White set the tone for the evening by proclaiming to be “the opening band, we don’t have a distinct personality.” Backed by a drummer and slide guitarist, lead man White utilized his guitar as a bass — creating a weird mix of rhythm and lead lines that contrasted sharply with the note-laden chaos elsewhere on stage. Hillbilly Beatles music delivered with a droning buzz. “Anybody here work for the post office? Are you armed?” Jim said before dedicating “The Perfect Day” to all of the postal workers in the audience. Lines like “sometimes I feel like Jesus in a Chinese opera” were sung through an ancient harmonica microphone in a quiet, mumbled blur. The song “Sleepytown” tackled the problem of somnambulism, and very nearly lulled the crowd into a void, with its soft-picking banjo riffs and Farfisa organ waves. Indeed, these guys may’ve been a little too esoteric for the mixed assembly, who seemed anxious to see what Byrne would pull out of his pockets.
At 10:00 p.m., Byrne and band walked out onto the stage with the crowd going nuts. Looking like a pink gorilla in an outrageous fuzzy day-glo suit, the drums kicked in with a manic beat and he stepped to the mic. “You may find yourself… living in a shotgun shack… ” Frenzy. Frenzy, I tell you. Frenzy again, I’ll say. I was ducking violently to avoid the arm-chopping motions of the besotten fans on either side of me. Backup vocalist Christina Wheeler joined David in a crowd-pleasing dance during the ending strains of “Once In A Lifetime” before throwing down immediately into “Making Flippy Floppy.” After that energetic groove had ended, someone shouted out “Hey! Do ‘Psycho Killer’!” to which Byrne smilingly replied, “Hold your horses!”
Byrne came out for “The Gates Of Paradise” in an army suit, and tweaked a Strat over the jungle-beat. “Take Me To The River” got a funky reworking, as if there wasn’t enough funk in it the first trip around. Slightly more driving, the jam was tempered somewhat by the tight arrangements — a four piece ensemble is a lot less muscle than the wall of sound that the old Talking Heads shows produced and David’s vocals seem to be wearier, not as snappy. Many of the popular Heads tunes like “Slippery People” and “Road To Nowhere” seemed to have been transposed down a level or two. But wearing the years like a sombrero, he still managed to electrify the gathering with fresh new material like the slidey-grind of “Daddy Go Down,” which brought out a hot sexy cajun fiddle solo to close. The vaguely industrial-alternative skip of “Dance On Vaseline” found Byrne wearing a kilt and doing a running-in-place dance that even had bystanders gasping for breath. The vibrant Wheeler, whose world beat dancing kept the energies up on-stage, was allowed a solo demonstration of vocal acrobatics during “Catherine’s World.” Using a microphone and an effects processor, she channeled several harpies, a banshee, and the sweet voice of Death, shrieking into the music hall with shocking passion. Appropriately, all band members left the stage — give the girl some props.
With no two songs residing in the same style, Byrne also delivered a spooky “Soft Seduction” complete with Theremin samples, and the Latin-flavored romp “Miss America” from his new album Feelings. For the encore, he surfaced in one of those skin-tight suits that feature the human anatomy (like Mr. Goodbody from Captain Kangaroo, and boy, did I just show my age there) and topped it with Mickey Mouse ears. A chillingly ironic characterization for “Psycho Killer,” in which the stiffly moving Byrne shuffled slowly across the stage keeping his arms braced to his sides. The new arrangement of the song skirts the electronica edge, and the trancey feel certainly punches up the subject matter. Finally, bathed in a blinding white light, he retreated into a fetal position that looked positively painful and remained there as the song faded out.
I’ll still kick myself for not going to see the famous Pantages shows that made up Stop Making Sense, for they were probably Byrne at his mega-stage peak. But this House Of Blues show proves that even on a smaller scale, Byrne is a master puppeteer.