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Sunday, Feb. 10, 2002


The name of the man is David Byrne

It says something about David Byrne's current position in popular music that two of the records released in 2001 on his Luaka Bop label -- Shuggie Otis' "Inspiration Information" and Jim White's "No Such Place" -- received more press than Byrne's own solo album, "Look Into the Eyeball."

The relative lack of attention has less to do with the quality of the Byrne disc than with the topicality of the Otis and White albums, the former thanks to its 25-year reputation (it's a re-release) as a foreshadow of '80s funk-rock and the latter because of its countryfied weirdness. "Look Into the Eyeball" is just another worthy attempt by Byrne to be taken seriously as a singer-songwriter.

At the helm of Talking Heads, Byrne was responsible for the last great surge of originality in rock. Outside of hip-hop and certain branches of electronica, everything that has emerged in pop music for the past 20 years has been pastiche, and while there's been a lot of great pastiche, nothing during that time has sounded as new as the first three Heads albums. At one time, Byrne was simply the most topical person in rock; everything he did attracted and, more significantly, deserved notice. Now, he's at the point where everything he does attracts and, more significantly, deserves respect. There's a difference.

Which may explain why tickets were still available the day of his Shibuya Club Quattro show on Feb. 6, the second of a two-day stand that marked his first Tokyo concerts in eight years. Most of the audience were over 35, which means there were probably more David-Byrne-as-a-Talking-Head fans than there were David-Byrne-as-a-solo-artist fans. The man himself -- trim, cheerful, with a shock of near-white hair floating above his jet-black eyebrows -- has turned from a wigged-out grad student into a jolly professor. ("Pretty sweet for 50," some tourist yelled. "I still have a few months," Byrne responded.)

As a musician, however, he's returned to his minimalist roots. Instrumentation was stripped to the bone: Byrne on guitars, Paul Frazier on bass, Mauro Refosco on percussion, David Hilliard on drums and not a keyboard in sight. Which isn't to say the keyboard parts weren't covered, only that they were covered by six string players.

Some people call this kind of thing "chamber rock," but the band could produce a mighty roar when it was called for. It wasn't called for much, though, mainly because Byrne's solo material, like that of any singer-songwriter, is mainly designed to convey a persona. In Byrne's case, it is a kind of domesticated highbrow who still finds childish delight in bodily functions and the vagaries of religion: Randy Newman minus the cynicism. Any roar might drown out the lyrics.

Once upon a time, it was fun trying to pin Byrne down, because he was so good at confounding expectations, what with the squawks, the spastic body movements, the funk expeditions and, of course, THE BIG SUIT. The words to the songs were simply one more motif in the Heads' rarefied rock world. What we had at Quattro was someone who was relaxed and more than happy to tell us what we were listening to, even if the explanations were often less revealing than the lyrics themselves. The title of "The Revolution," a song from the new album, referred to "what comes to you while you're sleeping, and in the morning everything is different."

On the other hand, songs we were familiar with were demystified. "And She Was," it turns out, is about "a girlfriend I had in high school who used to drop LSD and lay out near the Yoo-Hoo chocolate drink factory." The lyrics to "This Must Be the Place" were "written here in Tokyo, a long time ago." The conspiratorial air of these admissions added a nice touch of intimacy to the show, but much of the appeal of those old songs for me is their shaky connection to concrete experience. It was as if Byrne were forcing them to be personal against their will.

But if the themes seemed murky, the music was amazingly concise. Byrne's absorption of European and Latin American forms is more thorough and less self-conscious than that of bleeding hearts like Paul Simon or Peter Gabriel. His Spanish pronunciation on "Desconocido Soy" wasn't so hot, but the song sure was; and his rendition of a ballad from Emir Kusturica's "Underground" soundtrack, originally sung by Cesaria Evora, was heartbreakingly lovely, even though he had to read most of the Creole lyrics off of a sheet of paper.

Equally touching was a disco-fried cover of Whitney Houston's "I Wanna Dance With Somebody," a song that, rendered in Byrne's joyful wail, became an ode to all the lonely people. It's not something I would chose to perform in concert, but Byrne has every right to indulge his guilty pleasures.

Indulgence, of course, indicates a certain license, but Byrne earned the huge applause that brought him out for three separate encores. If I was less excited, it was probably because I still hadn't gotten over the Dismemberment Plan's intense show two nights before in the same venue. An audience half the size of this one had produced an ovation equal in size for a young band they had never seen before. I tried to remember the first time I experienced that epiphanic sense of discovery at a concert, and it came to me. The year: 1978. The place: the Boarding House in San Francisco. The band: Talking Heads.

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