By Jason Bovberg
WHAT’S IT ALL ABOUT?
I remember marveling over David Byrne when I first saw Jonathan Demme's Stop Making Sense—the legendary Talking Heads concert film—nearly two decades ago. Byrne was a kooky goof-rock stylist, a punk geek staggering across the stage in his huge suit, like some bug-eyed alien inhabiting a larger-than-life alternate-reality businessman. He was infused with manic weirdness and pounding energy, and the audience fed off it like a drug. Byrne has long since gone solo, and even though much of his energy has calmed, he still retains that admirable edge of geek weirdness. Only, now it's infused with even more of a world consciousness. He's grayer of hair and more at peace in his skin, but he can still goof-rock with the best of them.
David Byrne: Live at Union Chapel provides a fascinating study of the aging front man, giving you a good look at the man that once was and the man who continues to innovate today. Recorded at London's famed Union Chapel (an intimate rock arena that was once an old church), the show begins with—and is sprinkled with—tunes from the storied Talking Heads days, and it's a revealing experiment to compare the Stop Making Sense performances with these.
Immediately, Byrne shows that he hasn't lost his touch when it comes to his legendarily off-kilter rapport with the audience. He murmurs a few non-sequitors, and lets long moments of silence go by, and the audience laughs and just absorbs his vibe. Then he gets right to business with three songs from the Talking Heads heyday—"Nothing But Flowers", "And She Was", and "Once in a Lifetime". The songs, under the rhythmical sway of Byrne's new band, hit all the right notes but generally sound more subdued, more spare, not as complex as the admittedly frantic Stop Making Sense instrumentations. At least in his vocal delivery, Byrne offers the same soaring energy, but the music is more muted, more calm. It's an interesting take on the classic songs, as if they themselves have calmed for a new era.
After a surprisingly affecting stab at "God’s Child," a duet he once shared with the late Selena, a string entourage enters stage right and provides violin accompaniment throughout most of the remainder of the disc. Byrne's solo "The Great Intoxication" comes to fervent life over the mature underpinning of the strings, and it's probably the best I've ever heard this song played. I was excited at this point, but the next song—the operatic "Uni De Felice"—led me to believe I was in for a few slow dirges. Thankfully, however, Byrne surges back into form with "The Revolution", "Sax and Violins" (a Talking Heads tune that appeared on the soundtrack for Wim Wenders’ film Until the End of the World), and "This Must Be the Place".
At track 10, you begin to notice that the concert's energy is slowly-but-surely building, and perhaps it will remind you of the gradual musical elevation of "Stop Making Sense." The stage is more packed with musicians, and they're more and more likely to smile and boogie. "What a Day That Was" returns us to some great Talking Heads material, and now the instrumentation is really complex and pulse-pounding. The string accompaniment is absolutely inspired here, and it carries through to two of Byrne's most successful solo singles—"Like Humans Do" and "U.B. Jesus".
Then, the highlight of the disc hits you—a marvelous and giddy presentation of the Heads' "Life During Wartime," crashing at you with burning strings and heavy percussion. Following it are "Lazy" and an unlikely cover of "Wanna Dance With Somebody!". Yeah, you read that right. This is a played-straight but totally campy cover of the Whitney Houston pop hit, and the audience eats it up. Rounding out the string-accompanied tracks is the mournful "Ausencia". And finishing off the disc, perhaps in the concert's encore, are the spare "The Accident" and an exuberant show-ender—"Road to Nowhere." It's a terrific finish.
The concert has given me a new appreciation for Byrne, who, even though he's lost some of his youthful spastic behavior, has lost none of his relevancy and continues to explore new ideas and concepts in song. He's as brave as he ever was, and well worth listening to—and watching.
HOW’S IT LOOK?
Warner Music presents David Byrne: Live at Union Chapel in a vivid anamorphic-widescreen presentation of the concert’s 1.85:1 presentation. Detail is quite good, particularly those big close-ups on the faces of the band members. Colors are striking, a very rich palette of blues and oranges and browns. The video presentation’s primary drawback is its level of artifacting, which can be distracting in backgrounds. I also noticed a weird color anomaly on the silver microphone. I saw no halos, but there were plenty of aliasing artifacts—for example, on guitar strings.
HOW’S IT SOUND?
The disc’s Dolby Digital 5.1 audio track is excellent, offering appropriately punchy bass, warm vocals, and immersive surround activity. Stereo separation across the front is wonderful, providing a pleasing openness. The drawback is that the surround activity can feel gimmicky—crowd noise, drums, tambourine, and guitar all find themselves anchored in certain channels, lending the presentation an unrealistic feel. To combat that, I switched to the Dolby Digital 2.0 track, but to my dismay, the 2.0 track is fixed in the center and not nearly as open and sonically pleasing as the 5.1.
WHAT ELSE IS THERE?
The concert is interspersed with 30-40-second interview segments with Byrne, in which he ruminates on everything from his notion of loving humans, to the effect of strings on his older songs, to his “heavy emphasis on the groove” and dancing. These are fun little conversations, and I like the way they're sprinkled throughout the show, giving us little breaks but not stopping the flow.
WHAT’S LEFT TO SAY?
I've already watched this concert film twice. If you're a Byrne fan, you'll definitely find yourself returning to its intimate charms, if only to marvel over the way today's Byrne compares very favorably to the Byrne you already have immortalized in Stop Making Sense. Image quality is fine, and sound quality is superb.