David Byrne played at The Apollo on Monday night and it was quite a night. Byrne had promised in advance that this tour was ambitious and it definitely did things differently in terms of staging and presentation. The stage was completely bare of any of the standard rock 'n' roll equipment- no amps, no drum riser or drum kit. As we took our seats all that was on the stage was a metal legged table and a chair under a single spotlight. At 8.45 he appeared, singing Here to a rubber brain. Dressed in a grey suit and shirt and barefoot, grown out white hair, he looks every inch the intellectual and artist. But things heat up very quickly after this arty intro. My friend, DJ, who got me the ticket, saw the show in Birmingham the night before and said that the crowd remained mostly seated throughout until the encore. From the moment the band hit the opening notes of the second song, his 2002 hit with X-Press 2 Lazy, the Manchester crowd is on its feet and dances until the end.
The band are all, in Byrne's words, 'untethered'. All dressed identically, grey suits and shirts and barefoot, the eleven players are free to move around. The guitar and bass have no leads, the keyboard player has his keys in front of him on a harness, again no leads, there are two hardworking backing vocalists/dancers and anywhere up to six drummers, standing up samba-style playing a variety of drums and percussion instruments. The show is highly choreographed. No backdrop or projections except for a silver metallic curtain and at one point a light as a TV set but the lights change the shape of the stage. Lit from low down hge shadows engulf the back wall during one song, genuinely exciting to look at. At times the eleven band members stand in a line, at times they move in circles or file in and out, some walking forwards as others move back. Lots of this seems to be a visual nod to Stop Making Sense. At the close of one song the lights go out and when they come up again the band are all lying down. On another they all stand on the right hand side and then stagger to the left, as if at sea in rough weather. All of this is very clever and very stylised and could run the risk of being too theatrical were it not for the playing and the songs. At no point do I wish they'd drop the artifice and just play the songs. The songs, the dancing, the show- all add up to something hugely imaginative.
Lazy is bright and breezy, full of bounce, and followed by I, Zimbra, monumentally funky and African influenced. They follow that with Slippery People. At this point I'm pretty much in David Byrne gig heaven- his voice is strong, his dancing energetic (and at times wonderfully in sync with his backing dancers) and the band are playing fully realised versions of the Talking Heads songs you want played at a gig. He throws in songs from other projects he's had along the way, one from the album he did with St. Vincent and one from his record with Fatboy Slim and a few from solo records (Like Humans Do). The songs from the current album American Utopia slip in seamlessly, less arch in concert than on disc. Anyone else who had written something as influential and massive as Once In A Lifetime would play it as an encore. David Byrne plays it at about the half way point, a single spotlight following his jerky dancing along the lip of the stage. It's all astonishing stuff- loud, clear, full of energy and the band and David are clearly enjoying the songs as much as we are. The set closes with two Talking Heads songs, first a blistering version of 1988's Blind, a song I hadn't expected and have loved since the day it came out, and then a red hot dance through Burning Down The House, the stage drenched in red light. To top this the first encore gives up The Great Curve (to join Remain In Light's Born Under Punches, played earlier), groundbreaking funk in 1981 and still ahead of the curve now. The group then stand in a line and play a cover of Janelle Monae's Hell You Talmbout, minimal drumbeat and chanting voices- essentially a list of black men killed by white Americans. The tour is sold out. David is bringing the show back in December, to arenas. My advice, if you want to see someone doing something other people don't or can't and doing it as well as you can imagine, is to get a ticket. The heat goes on, as he reminds us forcefully in Born Under Punches, the heat goes on.