Thursday 18 October 2018

Sonic adventurers strike again

Enduring partnership: David Byrne (left) and Brian Eno have worked together since the late '70s
Enduring partnership: David Byrne (left) and Brian Eno have worked together since the late '70s

In the '80s, the ground-breaking Talking Heads concert movie Stop Making Sense would be shown regularly in certain Dublin cinemas, long after its initial run had ended.

It remains a landmark in its genre because it took the standard rock gig and nudged it towards something approaching performance art. It was a case of David Byrne-ing down the house.

It was my introduction to Talking Heads, and I was hugely intrigued by the sight of that funny-looking man in black-rimmed glasses, drowned in an enormous white suit, singing about psycho killers on an acoustic guitar -- and all in sync with a backing tape on a small ghetto blaster.

Yet this twitchy, spindly figure, brimful of nervous, edgy energy -- more Anthony Perkins than Carl Perkins -- completely owned the stage.

It would be another 15 years before I saw the doyen of the New York art-rock scene in the flesh. As a solo artist at a show in the late '90s in the Olympia, Byrne arrived on stage dressed head-to-toe in a flesh-coloured skeleton suit, looking like a reanimated exhibit from the Bodies grotesquerie, only with better hair and functioning vocal cords.

Now Byrne returns to Ireland this Monday night for a show in the National Concert Hall, when he will concentrate on his musical collaborations with Brian Eno, specifically the albums My Life In The Bush Of Ghosts from 1981 (and reissued in 2006) and last year's rapturously received Everything That Happens Will Happen Today.

The pair first worked together back in the late '70s when Eno produced Talking Heads' album More Songs About Buildings And Food in the Bahamas.

A unique pairing of left-brain sonic adventurers, the union was a fruitful one, and the Englishman was retained to helm Fear Of Music and Remain In Light, two records to rub in the noses of people who insist on lamenting the dearth of great music in the '80s.

And thrillingly, these albums will feature in the concert in the NCH, although the bulk of the set list will concentrate on Bush Of Ghosts and Everything That Happens.

The former's use of non-western rhythms, specifically the use of African percussion, as well as the use of cut-ups, samples and 'found sounds' proved to be a potent source of inspiration for future generations of aural experimentalists.

The Afro-beat of Vampire Weekend, one of last year's most welcome musical developments, can be traced back to Byrne, and you can hear his influence on everyone from Clap Your Hands Say Yeah to our own Bell X1.

As for Eno, his influence on pop culture is omnipresent. He began his extraordinary career as the keyboard wizard and founding member of Roxy Music.

Resplendent in platform shoes, shiny blue satin, outre eyeliner and a long blonde mane, he was Bolan and Bowie's partner in crime in making the '70s come alive in glorious glam technicolour.

Ever restless, he effectively invented ambient music with a series of out-there solo albums that foretold the post-acid house vogue for chill-out vibes.

There were also team-ups with the kingpins of folk-rock (Paul Simon), prog rock (Robert Fripp), sado-minimalism (the Velvets' John Cale) and, er, personal computers (Bill Gates) -- Eno composed the start-up music for Windows 95! (Control/alt/delete where appropriate.)

Eno himself is not scheduled to play on Monday night, although there have been rumours that he will make a surprise appearance in the city in which he has spent so much time helping sculpt the sound and feel of U2's music, from the Unforgettable Fire to No Line On The Horizon. Indeed, Eno is now not just Bono et al's co-producer but also their co-writer.

The story of how he came to reunite with David Byrne for Everything That Happens . . . is an interesting one, not least because they assembled it while they were living in different continents.

"By and large we stuck to our separate territories," Eno explained. "I worked on the instrumentals and he [Byrne] generally focused on the vocals and lyrics. We quickly realised we were making something like electronic gospel, music in which singing becomes the central event."

Byrne's take on their creative partnership was also revealing: "The challenge was more emotional than technical: to write simple heartfelt tunes without drawing on cliche. The results, in many cases, are uplifting, hopeful and positive, even though some lyrics describe cars exploding, war, and similarly dark scenarios."

At its best, on the title track and a song like One Fine Day, the album is a truly inspired mix of highly accessible electro pop with Byrne's layered vocal melodies pushed centre stage.

Having initially arrived only as a stream or download from their own website, the album was then made available to commercial websites such as Amazon MP3 and iTunes before getting a physical release last November where it also came as a deluxe-packaged CD in a tin, so the momentum has been slowly building.

Byrne's hair may have silvered since Stop Making Sense and his white suit gone to the great wardrobe in the sky, but, for me, he has never sung better than on his latest album. Let's just hope he's also ditched the skeleton suit.

David Byrne plays the National Concert Hall, Dublin, on Monday night.

nkelly@independent.ie

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