Same as he ever was: When David Byrne played the Galway Arts Festival (2004)

Any anoraks out Byrne-watching on July 26 might have bumped into a stranger in a strange land. According to his online tour journal, the singer took his fold-out bike for a ride on Salthill Prom in the afternoon, after a morning jog that led him to “stony beaches, cow fields… and a military firing range”. He got lost too – seekings cliffs but but finding housing estates, cursing his lack of a map on his Road to Nowhere.

Since the mid-70s, David Byrne has been a singer, musician, film director, author, mixed media artists and of course the founding member of seminal new wave art-rock band Talking Heads. Byrne has always strived to blur the line between these vocations, and indeed the conventions within the visual arts, having recently exhibited works through the media of billboards in Belfast, subways in Tokyo, and ‘invisible’ exhibitions in London’s Victoria & Albert Museum. In April 2004 he won the Wired magazine art award with a project composed on and exhibited entirely on Microsoft Powerpoint.

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Getting Byrne at the headline act of the Galway Arts Festival 2004 was therefore a hell of a scalp for the organisers. His cross-generational appeal ensured tickets inevitably sold out and if you were lucky enough to get one you were rewarded with an indelible performance.

Byrne comes on stage dressed in what looks like a boiler suit cut by Savile Row and he and his band open with Glass, Concrete and Stone, from the soundtrack to the Stephen Frears film Dirty Pretty Things. The intro’s subdued xylophone and cello swathes deftly dissolve the pre-gig chat of the Radisson crowd . Most stand still or sway slightly, all eyes on stage as Byrne sings, “I’m looking at happiness/ keeping my flavour fresh/ nobody knows I guess/ how far I’ll go,” as we wonder what course the set will take.

Byrne introduces I Zimbra, a take on the Dada poetry of Hugo Ball, and within the first half hour the band have reworked Talking Heads classics Naive Melody and Blind, the percussion duo Mauro Refosco and Graham Hawthorne adding an earthy blitz of xylophone and bongos.

Fans of the Talking Heads concert movie Stop Making Sense are soon ticking the boxes – the familiar tics and yelps are there, as are the the robo-rooster neck jerks, geeky flailing arms and jelly legs – all in check, same as it ever was – aside from the now silver hair.

Talking Heads songs mingle with tracks from solo album Look Into the Eyeball and current LP Grown Backwards. The nine-piece band  – including Texan sextet the Toscan Strings – take the angular spikiness of early Talking Heads songs and reinterpret them as rhythm-heavy tribal tracks while still preserving their original vigour.

Songs aren’t segregated by era, rather by their original lyrical themes, some contrived as prophetic. Thus, Road To Nowhere is billed as an anthem commissioned by George W Bush for the upcoming Republican National Conference, and the 80s track (Nothing But) Flowers is an ironic ode to “dead shopping malls” and the horror left by green daisy fields. He sings of relationships through chaos theory metaphors (Why?) and just about manages Bizet’s aria Au Fond Du Temple Saint, reminding us that “opera was the pop music of its day. These meanderings reinforce a past comment that Byrne can transmit an audience from “outer space to the grocery checkout line and back up into heaven, all the while making the mundane seem massive and the massive seem graspable”.

Pre-camera phone disposable Kodac moment

The Anthem Once In a Lifetime shreds any remaining self-consciousness left in the Radisson when bassist Paul Frazier initiates the inevitable hands-in-the-air moment and the big hit goes mainline. There are further samba/Afrobeat workouts of Psycho Killer and Life During Wartime, the joyous mood veiling the paranoia and urban decay in the lyrics.

We’re invited to transcend this universal drudgery, still present years after the original songs were written. “This ain’t no party”?; “This ain’t no disco”? Could’ve fooled us.

We get two encores, amid hysterical applause. Some drunk punter who’s been chanting “burning down the house!” after every song begs for it again and gets a final dismissive snigger from Byrne. Instead we get a salsa carnival version of the X-Press 2 collaboration Lazy, the ubiquitous house anthem of 2002.

As the percussionists unleash a tribal assault to rival any techno party, Byrne the conductor reclaims the summer anthem from the mainstream and gives it back to his true audience – and he finally gets round to burnin’ down the house, in actions if not words.

  • Written for SIN Galway, 2004