Column 194 — David Byrne; Mountain Goats, Murs tonight…

Category: Blog — @ 5:49 pm October 15, 2008

There appears to be plenty of seats available for David Byrne Friday night, ranging from $48 to $78. Score your tix here. Should be a blast. I’m also told that Byrne has Thursday off, so keep your eyes peeled for him and his entourage around town…

Column 194: Thinking Outside the Head
Byrne-ing Down the Holland

David Byrne is a genius. Or at least he seems like one to me.

I remember reading a cover story about him 20 years ago — I can’t remember if it was in Time or Newsweek — but the blurb said it all: “Rock’s Renaissance Man.” On the cover were multiple headshots of Byrne brought together as an art collage in a Warholian sort of way — the message: Byrne was the new Andy Warhol. The story talked about his background as a member of Talking Heads and his performance art projects. But by the late 1980s, he’d already grown well past his Heads identity, having launched his own world-beat record label — Luaka Bop (where I was first introduced to Brazilian and Cuban dance music). Byrne was becoming known as much for his creative vision as his cool, cooing vocals.

Today, Google “David Byrne” and you’ll find as many websites describing his art as his latest album. When I mentioned to a couple friends that I was thinking of writing a column about him, they quickly sent me their favorite Byrnian links. One went to a page at davidbyrne.com that described his bike rack project for the New York Department of Transportation and PaceWildenstein art gallery. Fabricated from metal, the nine bike racks installed throughout Manhattan and Brooklyn resembled everyday icons — a mudflap girl, a dollar sign, a woman’s high-heel shoe, a dog. The art looked so cool in the photos that I couldn’t imagine chaining my Bianchi to one, and then I wondered if this functional art project would encourage cyclers to begin chaining bikes to other art never intended to be used as anchors to stave off thieves.

Then there was “Playing the Building,” an installation at Färgfabriken, Stockholm, in 2005 where Byrne taught an old factory how to sing. He did it by figuring out ways to make sounds using the building’s structural elements. “Everyone is familiar with the fact that if you rap on a metal column, for example, you will hear a ping or a clang, but I wondered if the pipes could be turned into giant flutes, and if a machine could make some of the girders vibrate and produce tones,” Byrne says on his website. “After thinking about how girders vibrate when a truck or a train goes over a metal bridge, it seemed just a matter of working out the mechanics of playing a building.”

Hook it all up to an old church organ and you’ve created a building-sized musical instrument suited for the largest compositions. Before this tour began, Byrne applied the same concept to the Battery Maritime Building in Lower Manhattan. Even Andy never thought of anything like that.

And there’s more, like how he made dull business software PowerPoint into an art medium, or his series of self-portrait dolls, one of which wound up on the cover of 1997 album Feelings. Had I been given a chance to interview Byrne, I would have asked how he manages to do everything he does. I’m sure he would have given the same answer that Omaha artist/poet/philosopher Bill Farmer gave when interviewed shortly before his death: The question wasn’t when he had time to do art, but how he could possibly not do art. Every moment of his life was dedicated to some form of creative expression, because that was who he was. In that way, Byrne reminds me of Bill.

Like all good artists, Byrne invents new ways of seeing and using everyday objects. And he does it with a natural ease, without an ounce of pretension or angst — unless you’re talking about psycho killers or the sound of gunfire in the distance.

Oh that’s right, Byrne’s also a songwriter and musician. Sure, folks may know about his art, but the reason they’re headed to the Holland Performing Arts Center Friday night has more to do with giant suits, celebratory dancing and music.

Billed as a collaboration between David Byrne and Brian Eno, his latest album Everything that Happens Will Happen Today isn’t a huge departure from Byrne’s other solo outings. If you like those, you’ll probably like this, too. Byrne calls it “folk-electronic-gospel,” but doesn’t that describe just about everything he’s done with Eno over the years?

For me, the album’s high points don’t happen until the second half. Trotting out on a disco riff, “Strange Overtones” is the peak — my favorite Byrne song since the salsa-flavored, horn-heaven track “Make Believe Mambo” from 1989’s Rei Momo. There’s nothing similar about the two songs really, except both own remarkable melodies and are irresistible dance-floor fodder. Too bad there’s no room to dance in the Holland, because trippy groove-scape “Poor Boy” is laser targeted at getting your hind-side shaking. And it won’t be the only song that’ll make you want to move, judging by the set list from the first night of the tour, which included Heads’ classics “I Zimbra” “Houses in Motion” “Once in a Lifetime” and “Crosseyed and Painless,” all taken from albums produced by Eno (the entire evening is dedicated exclusively to Byrne/Eno collaborations, though Eno won’t be there).

Expect a spectacle, and get there early — there’s no opening act. Who needs one when you’ve got a 7-member back-up band, a small dance troupe and all the visual magic we’ve come to expect from an artist who once taught a building to sing. Friday night he’s going to teach a building to dance.

Tonight, everyone’s favorite indie rapper, Murs, is playing at The Waiting Room with Kidz in the Hall and Isaiah. $12, 9 p.m. At Slowdown it’s Mountain Goats and Kaki King. Note that the show time on the Slowdown site is 8 p.m. — that’s to facilitate the debate-watching party. Kaki King won’t go on until afterward (9:30) $15.

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