Counting All The Possibilities: David Byrne in Albany
1) The election result is still sinking in Wednesday evening, when I set off with the wife on the comfortable 60-mile journey to Albany. But though I’ve been given directions, I’m so tired but from the previous night’s emotional exultations that I drive right past the car park for visitors to the Empire State Plaza and am forced to follow a loop back towards the Thruway. And so I park in the multi-story car park opposite the one intended for us, this one clearly marked “Permits only: All other vehicles will be towed.” I recognize it from when I last came to Albany, in November, to become an American citizen. Gaining that citizenship entitled me to vote on Tuesday. I now live in a different country. If you know what I mean.
2) Ours is one of but a handful of cars in this park; it’s clearly for use by daily governmental workers. We nonetheless follow directions to the Empire State Plaza; they lead us through a tunnel or two and up three flights of deserted stairs that culminate in a steel door that I assume absolutely must be locked. Somewhere close by David Byrne is meant to be taking a stage to a sold-out room full of a thousand people. We have not seen hair nor hide of a single individual since parking. I feel like I’m in that scene out of Spinal Tap, where the group gets lost making its way to the stage. Or perhaps, the Twilight Zone: did a neutron bomb hit the State Capital while we weren’t looking?
3) We push at the steel door, and lo and behold, we’re right inside the Empire State Plaza, a vast governmental mall complete with McDonald’s and Starbucks, long walls full of modern art, and a sanitation worker who points us towards tonight’s venue, the Egg, a hundred yards down the hallway. A manned elevator takes us up the five floors to the larger of the venue’s two performance spaces. David Byrne was meant to have taken the stage fourteen minutes ago. We are shown to our seats, and they may be the best we’ve ever had, in any venue, anywhere. (And believe me, I’ve had some good seats in my time.) They are directly center of stage, just a few rows back, high enough to gaze right into the whites of David Byrne’s eyes when he takes to the stage approximately thirty seconds after we sit down.
4) All of them dressed in eye-blinding white, Byrne and his musicians pause before starting the set. “Well,” he says. “You wake up this morning, it’s not the same country as it was yesterday.” We take a moment to applaud that country for changing – though it was not quite something that occurred overnight. David talks about the e-mails and texts that have come from around the world to his multicultural group members’ various Blackberries, cell phones and e-mail accounts. He mentions that Cameroon-born, Parisian-raised backing singer Kaïssa got one from Senegal, and on his web site journal, later quotes it in full. I don’t know who came up with this phrase, whether it was the author of the e-mail or a newspaper columnist or politician, but it’s poetry that merits repeating:
Rosa sat so Martin could walk. Martin walked so Barack could run. Barack ran so our children can fly.
5) I don’t see a single black face in the audience. Ho hum.
6) We are so glad not to have missed anything, for Byrne and band start with “Strange Overtones,” the best song of a consistently excellent new album with Brian Eno, Everything That Happens Will Happen Today. The sound is as clear as I’ve ever heard. As you may have surmised by now, this is our first time at the Egg, and it had will not be the last. This room is beautiful: a perfect semi-circle of just under a thousand seats, not a bad view in the house, and an absolutely crystalline sound. Like the Bearsville Theater back in Woodstock, it’s the kind of venue worth attending even for an artist you might not normally choose to see, because it’s hard to imagine not having a great experience.
7) The show is billed as David Byrne: Songs of David Byrne and Brian Eno. Though I could always have checked out the Wikipedia tour page in advance to know what to expect, I prefer surprises. Hearing “I Zimbra” as second song is one of them. So, too, is the appearance of the three dancers – also dressed all in white – who take to the stage now, retrieve the backing singers by hand, and lead them into a carefully choreographed series of movements around the stage. Suddenly, what looked like it could have been the usual musicians versus audience confrontation takes on the feeling of communal celebration. Byrne does his backward duckwalk on guitar and the mood for the evening is set.
8) Byrne and Eno’s last and only previous album together was the monumental My Life In The Bush Of Ghosts. We get but one song from that record: “Help Me Somebody.” Byrne notes how what are now casually called samples were called “found sounds” back at the time that they made it. Vocalists Kaïssa, Jenni Muldaur and Redray Frazier recreate those sounds anew. A shame, perhaps, we couldn’t have heard more from this album.
9) The audience is very very quiet for most of the night. Some people take to the standing area behind the back row to dance; a couple of people take to the side of the stage to do likewise. The rest of us sit a little too comfortably. Is everyone as tired as I am? I look around and they certainly seem, for the most part, older. This is the CBGB/Mudd Club generation and it’s nearing retirement age. I’ll let that sink in.
10) In the wake of September 11, almost every song I listened to took on new meaning. (I wrote about four such albums at the time, here at iJamming!). And so it is the wake of Obama’s election, especially with Everything That Happens Will Happen Today, on which Byrne’s lyrics consistently address our collective fears and yet are wrapped in carefully guarded optimism. From One Fine Day: “We can use the stars to guide the way/It is not that far – one fine day.” From “My Big Nurse”: “When we fall in love with war/when the angel fucks the whore, I’m Counting All The Possibilities.” And, of course, this line from “The River,” a title so potent Byrne could not leave it to Bruce Springsteen alone: “But a change is gonna come, Like Sam Cooke sang in ’63.” (Hi, Jeni.)
11) The dancers come and go over the course of the evening: they’re working hard as anyone. The intricacy of the choreography is revealed early in the fifth song (didn’t note its title) when Byrne steps back from the microphone as if a casual,unplanned move, and dancer Steven Recker rolls right through his splayed legs. Wow. Later in the set, they perform “My Big Hands (Fall Through The Cracks)” from The Catherine Wheel, a ballet that Byrne wrote for choreographer Twyla Tharp. My favorite movement – and again I didn’t note the song – is the song with the swivel office chairs. It takes serious skills to be able to pull that one off.
12) Again, having not allowed myself an online preview, I am pleasantly surprised by what I take to be the early appearance of several more Eno-produced Talking Heads songs: “Once In A Lifetime” and “Life During Wartime.” Naturally, these get the previously restrained crowd up on their feet, though unfortunately, far too many of the audience seem determined to relive the robotic dances of their early 80s youth for the latter song, rather than revel in the former song’s universal funk. It’s also worth noting that, while a great song is a great song is a great song – and they don’t come much better than “Once In A Lifetime,” of which I still have the 7” 45 I bought as a teen back in ’81 – I still feel nostalgic for the original presentation. Byrne is a genius, we all know that, and his voice and guitar playing appear not to have slacked whatsoever over the years. But I can’t assure you these versions are better than those of the Talking Heads, on record or in concert.
13) I take to the bathroom during a slow song and come back to find it was the last one. That was an alarmingly quick show: all of 75 minutes. Our tickets were comped, but had I ponied up the asking price, I’d have felt just a little short-changed.
14) As it turns out, Byrne and company will deliver five more songs over the course of three encores. This extends the set length almost all the way to an hour and three quarters, though Posie and I both remark afterwards that at least five or six minutes must have been spent by the assembled ensemble taking their collective bows, four times over. A little more music, a little less bowing, and this would be that much closer to the perfect David Byrne concert.
15) Encores include “The River,” and “Burning Down The House” which, if I’m not mistaken, is the night’s lone deviation from the Byrne-Eno theme. (I note now that “Don’t Worry About The Government” has also been played occasionally, perhaps as comment on the election; it’s my favorite song from 77.) And then there is “Everything That Happens Will Happen Today,” another song from which it’s possible to take new meaning. For, after all, if the line “Nothing has changed, but nothing’s the same” doesn’t quite capture what’s happened these last 36 hours, then the closing variation on the title surely does: “Ev’rything that happens could happen today.”
16) Special mention to all the musicians, who appear to be reveling in their contributions even though none of them are provided with solo opportunities. They’re a highly talented group: the full line-up is listed here.
17) Other than the set length, it’s impossible to really criticize this show. Venue, sound, lights, dancing, musicianship, song selection, pacing… all of it is just about perfect. You can tell just how much forethought has gone into the evening, and you can recognize that the concert needs to play to bigger venues than this (as it is doing in most cities) to make back its investment. Historically, some musicians fall by the wayside over the years, because they forget to treat their concerts as something special. David Byrne does not make that mistake.
18) The room empties, and we realize we haven’t talked to anyone in the audience; the sense of community from the election has been shared from the stage, but not truly amongst us. Oh well. We head out and, of course, can’t find the secret passageway back through the staircases and tunnels, but out on the street, we do find the car park easy enough – and, as I suspected, my car is still there, permit or no.
19) On the drive home, while my wife tries to get some shut-eye, I listen to WAMC, Albany’s public radio station, to which the car dial is often tuned. They feature an interview with John Lewis, a civil rights campaigner in 1964 who had his skull fractured by the police when he dared cross the bridge into Selma alongside Martin Luther King, Jr.. Lewis was later elected, and still remains, a member of the United States Congress; his own journey to the Capitol has often been celebrated as a victory for integration. Lewis has been in constant demand by the media over the election. I saw him on television 24 hours ago, just minutes after Obama was declared President Elect. And he’s still talking now; he says he got by on one and a half hour’s sleep. I guess you don’t make history by sleeping through it. I have no reason to complain about being tired.
20) What does this last aside have to do with the David Byrne concert? Everything and nothing. It depends how much you let your life be governed by music. With Talking Heads, David Byrne – especially during the Eno-produced period – did much to incorporate African rhythms into a new wave that at times seemed almost embarrassingly monocultural. With the Tom Tom Club, the group’s rhythm section, Chris Frantz and Tina Weymouth, were just as effusive in embracing funk, calypso, reggae and hip-hop. Byrne went on to start a record label, Luaka Bop, that became a world music trendsetter. And don’t forget, Talking Heads had their first hit, way back in ’78, covering an Al Green song, “Take Me To The River.” Now David Byrne writes a song reducing that title to “The River” and within months, its reference to Sam Cooke becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. We wouldn’t have got here without the sacrifices made by the likes of John Lewis and Martin Luther King. But we wouldn’t have gotten here, either, without the musicians, who, from the very very beginning (as I have repeatedly learned while working on my current book), never allowed institutionalized segregation to prevent them from working together. There are times when I wonder if I couldn’t have done something more meaningful with my life. And then, there are times when I’m happy to have spent it wrapped up in music, the real great communicator As Byrne sings on “Home,” the opening song to Everything That Happens Will Happen Today, “We’re home – and the band keeps marchin’ on/Connecting – to ev’ry living soul/Compassion – for things I’ll never know.” Peace.