Byrne's performance in Paris is a 'once in a lifetime' experience

by Lindsay Barnes | 5/10/04 5:00am

PARIS May 5 -- In 1977, the soon-to-be-legendary quartet Talking Heads appeared at Le Bataclan opening for The Ramones on their first European tour. That night, a gawky, awkward man-child with his black hair parted to one side, strained his upper register while singing, "Mommy, Daddy, come and look at me now/I'm a big man in a great big town."

When David Byrne returned to that same stage Wednesday night, it was clear that the man-child was all grown up. To be sure, the odd duckling had not turned into a swan; he just turned into one funky, odd duck.

For over two hours, Byrne demonstrated to the crowd of roughly 1,000 why someone as strange as he became a pop star in the first place: above all else, music is fun. Playing with a band that includes bass, drums, percussion and the six-piece Tosca Strings, Byrne played a set that put a smile on everyone's face and a groove in everyone's step.

After opening with the subdued, albeit beautifully performed, "Glass, Concrete and Stone" from his latest album "Grown Backwards," Byrne made it clear that he was there to have a good time by launching into the Talking Heads barnburner "Zimbra." In between shouting out Dadaist nonsense lyrics, Byrne moved about the stage with such obvious glee that it was impossible for even the most uptight of people not to tap along with the same pleasure.

Normally it's disappointing when the former frontman of a group as famous as Talking Heads performs a set consisting mostly of solo material, but such was not the case as Byrne and his band positively lit up the City of Lights. They infused every number with so much infectious energy and quirky aplomb that it didn't matter whether the tune was familiar or not.

Songs like "Lazy" and "Dialog Box" from "Grown Backwards," and past solo gems like "Marching through the Wilderness" and "Like Humans Do" were met with enthusiastic audience reactions that mirrored their enthusiastic performance.

But to everyone's delight, Byrne did not neglect old Talking Heads favorites, making for some of the night's most unforgettable moments.

When he plucked out the opening notes of "Road to Nowhere," it moved the audience to its feet for good as he proceeded to sing out with as much joy as he had in 1986. When that was immediately followed up by a rousing performance of "Once in a Lifetime," the audience let out a roar that could have sent the Arc de Triomphe tumbling down.

However, Byrne was hardly going through the motions on the greatest hits. By using the Tosca Strings, Byrne added new dimensions to the songs he had played a million times before to keep them fresh.

The melange of noise originally provided by Robert Fripp's guitar on "I Zimbra" was now a tornado of wondrous dissonance when played by the Tosca Strings. Instead of "Naive Melody (This Must Be the Place)" beginning with a lone synthesizer, it began with the light yet rich bounce of violins, viola and cellos.

In fact, the greatest reinvention took place during what is perhaps Byrne's best-known song, "Psycho Killer."

The strings rose slowly from silence to play a hauntingly restrained prelude before giving away the secret and playing the familiar staccato bass intro. Byrne then stepped up to the microphone and sang the first verse in a chillingly soft voice that, when combined with the strings, gave the song's narrator an air of eerie sophistication. It was the Hannibal Lecter remix of "Psycho Killer." The song slowly crescendoed to a climax in which Byrne strapped on his Telecaster and chopped out a menacing guitar solo. The subsequent ovation wouldn't die down for nearly two minutes.

As great as the songs were, the real treat of the concert proved to be Byrne joyfully taking on the role of live entertainer. Sporting a brown, polyester Dickies shirt with matching slacks and saddle-style rubber golf spikes, he only stopped moving to rest between songs. But with every "one-two-three-four" he was back to deftly bounding all over the stage with panache to spare.

His dancing style can best described as a combination of the graceful slapstick of Buster Keaton and a spaced-out game of Dance Dance Revolution.

He occasionally played with a new and amusing delivery of his old lyrics. One such instance was during "Once in a Lifetime" when he bellowed, "Remove the water! Carry the water!" like a mad King George III demanding his tea.

He even managed a bit of self-deprecating humor. After his sweet version of the Verdi aria "Un di Felice, Eterea," he smiled and said, "See? Anybody can do it."

Byrne and his merry band of players will be coming stateside soon and it would be a shame to miss this tour. This is a show for those who know every Talking Heads song by heart and for those who don't know "Wild, Wild Life" from wild rice.

On this night he sang, "This ain't no party/this ain't no disco." While the music may not have been exactly disco, there was no doubt it was an incredibly thrilling party.