The Globe And Mail OCTOBER 30, 2008 - by Carl Wilson


Any list of musicians you'd expect to inspire a "jukebox musical" á la ABBA's Mamma Mia! or Billy Joel's Movin' Out probably wouldn't include David Byrne and Brian Eno, creators of brainy conceptual pop with the Talking Heads in the late 1970s and, separately and together, to this day. But at times in Byrne's concert browsing through the duo's back pages at Toronto's Massey Hall on Wednesday, a Broadway treatment sprang to mind - and seemed like a surprisingly fine idea.

The plot would concern a young American art student who seems like his sensitive skin will turn raw red on contact with normal human feeling, a paranoid, twitching "talking head", and how he changed his solipsistic ways - in particular, through his encounters with a former feathers-and-sequins-wearing, glam-rock star (Eno in his Roxy Music days) who had grown into studio Svengali and an explorer of the textures (rhythmic, tonal and imaginative) to be discovered beyond Western so-called civilization, in a transcultural interzone sometimes referred to as a Fourth World.

By the final act, our young neurotic would be transformed into a silver-headed fifty-six-year-old in a white tennis shirt dispensing a lifetime's worth of cool wisdom, sometimes with a dry professorial wink and other times sometimes swinging his hips and raising his arms like a gospel preacher to the screams of a devoted throng, just as Byrne did in Toronto on Wednesday.

And the coda would be the reunion of the pair for the first time in twenty-seven years to put out an understated new album, Everything That Happens Will Happen Today, initially on the Internet, and later, as Byrne put it, "in the physical world, where some of us live."

Those ranks of the visibly physically present don't tend to include Eno, who has long eschewed live performance - unable to stand the idea of going through the same motions night over night on tour - and keeps busy instead on one level as a sound-and-installation artist and on another as a producer to the likes of U2 and Coldplay.

In his stead, Byrne was accompanied by a terrifically able band, heavy on the rhythm section, as well as a trio of backup singers and another threesome of young and beautiful dancers, every one dressed head to toe in gleaming white. But if neat appearances initially gave the impression that the audience might be in for a placid sort of evening, then they were being set up - by the time the ensemble took its final bow in the last of three encores, those tidy whites must have been drenched in sweat.

In his solo career since the last Talking Heads album in 1988, Byrne has preferred to keep the focus on new sounds and thoughts, traversing genres from samba to opera. But the theme of a Byrne-Eno retrospective serves as an excuse to delve into his old band's most creatively fertile era, when Eno helped open them up to African polyrhythms and eerie electronic timbres. When the dancers first took the stage in the second song, the Dada sound-poem I Zimbra from 1979's Fear Of Music, they seemed almost to be symbolizing the role of the producer by moving the microphones around and forcing the singers to follow them around the stage, to the point that two of the singers wound up lying flat on their backs while dancers leaned over them holding the microphones to their mouths.

The choreography (contributed by three different New York dance-makers during rehearsals before the tour started in September) started out quite tight - conjuring up that notion of a full-blown theatre piece - but became more loose and playful as the set went along. At times the other performers, who were given equal status to the frontman, weaved their running and leaping around Byrne's still central point, while at others he got into the full of the action. One number found him and the dancers all slumped in office chairs and gradually beginning to roll and spin around, making changing constellations in a sort of cubicle ballet. As he bent his knees to dig into his strings during one guitar solo, a dancer suddenly leapfrogged right over his back.

The enthusiastic crowd, mostly of an age to recall keenly the days when Byrne was an avatar of new-wave individualism, was likewise in motion. They repeatedly got to their feet for the old hits, from still-sadly relevant Life During Wartime and hauntingly beautiful Heaven and the cover of Al Green's Take Me to the River to the show's one departure from the Eno-related mandate, a third-encore sounding of the Heads' biggest hit, Burning Down The House, that more than accomplished its stated mission. And they sat down again for the generally quieter new numbers, a rhythm that the staging smartly anticipated. Byrne rotated between his Fender Strat or Telecaster and acoustic guitar, showing himself a more supple (although still avuncularly awkward) dancer and more fearsome soloist (often using the intense buzz of an electromagnetic Ebow in place of a pick) than one might have guessed about the barking, twitching frontman of his youth.

Byrne was at once recapitulating his personal journey from wired-up young geek to wired-in older sage (his website journal is consistently one of the most valuable reads online, and certainly the most sophisticated from anyone remotely resembling a celebrity) and rearranging the fragments of his catalogue to tell new tales. In the 1981 classic Once In A Lifetime, he skewered American complacency, chopping the air with his hand and declaiming "same as it ever was, same as it ever was" (during the song, one of the dancers quietly imitated that famous gesture at the back of the stage); now, in the title track of the new album, which finally closed the two-hour show, he calmly observes "nothing has changed, but nothing's the same," and that no matter when an event takes place, it "will happen today."

While well aware of stark realities (in the same song the narrator hears his neighbour's car explode), Byrne exudes a clear-headed, cautious optimism that people of goodwill can unite and find their way in the dark, a bit reminiscent of a certain similarly cerebral candidate for office in his homeland. (After mentioning his hope for an Obama win and hearing the Canadian crowd roar back, he suggested they all make their way to Buffalo and cast some ballots: "Nobody will notice.")

Every fan will have his or her own remembered highlight, whether it's the dancers' sensual undulations during an exquisite The Great Curve or Byrne's clear delight in reviving the eco-phobic absurdity of 1979's Air ("Some people say not to worry about the air / Some people don't know shit about the air!"). But some kind of pride of place must go to the way that he represented My Life In The Bush Of Ghosts, the prescient 1981 collection of globalist grooves and what at the time Byrne and Eno termed "found voices", which would soon be called samples. Before the concert it seemed like quite a mystery how this essential part of the pair's discography (reissued in 2006) could be fit into a live show. Byrne answered that question by replacing the original tape loops of a New Orleans radio preacher in the song Help Me Somebody with his own brayed imitation.

In a flash it became clear just how similar the preacher's diction and phraseology really was to the kind of sociopathic viewpoint characters that appear in many of Byrne's early songs, and also how versatile an instrument he'd rendered himself - the spastic young introvert who became able to fully inhabit other voices and other lives. If that hypothetical musical needs a title, a line from The Great Curve might be apt: "The World Is Near."