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Byrne-ing Down the Coach House

Pop music review: In his performance in San Juan Capistrano, the singer shows he's more than just a Talking Head and still has spark.

September 06, 1997|JOHN ROOS | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

SAN JUAN CAPISTRANO — "Hey, (your city here), are you ready to rock?"

"How are you all doin' tonight?"

They're both rock concert standards.

But David Byrne had a different question for the crowd Thursday night at the Coach House here: "How many of you out there have computers?"

Posed near the end of an energetic performance that leaned toward the unusual, musically and theatrically, the query barely raised an eyebrow.

After nearly two hours and Byrne's third and final encore, the audience must have pondered what had transpired--an aerobics workout, a techno-dance party, a costume ball, or perhaps just a completely unpredictable rock 'n' roll concert?

Bubbling with good spirits, the former Talking Head leader alternately jogged in place, pogo-ed up and down, and herky-jerked around. He even curled up into a fetal position at the end of an excellent version of the Heads' classic "Psycho Killer."

He changed his clothes often in a makeshift dressing room at the rear of the stage, trying out a pink mohair suit, a Boy Scout leader's uniform, a plaid kilt, a bodysuit and, briefly, pants and a shirt.

Other oddities included his backing band's choice of instruments. Besides guitar, bass and drums, this big band of the '90s featured synthesizers, keyboards, loops, pedals and lap steel guitar.

Byrne's experimental nature also extends to musical forms; he throws together such unlikely components as country and western with jungle, calypso with pop, and electronica with punk, Cajun and hillbilly. Tantalizing Latin American rhythms spice things up, too--and often when least expected.

*

In the wrong hands, such eclecticism and visual stimulation might simply overload the senses and trivialize the music. But Byrne tied these seemingly disparate elements into one balanced, cohesive package. Smartly, he never let the drama overwhelm the music. A mixture of old and new, the most rewarding selections were the most bare.

For example, a soulful version of Al Green's "Take Me to the River" soared because of the gospel-like harmony vocals of bassist Desmond Foster and backup singer Christina Wheeler. Similarly, no props were needed to support the eerie but tender ballad titled "A Soft Seduction" or the set-closing, emotionally charged "Buck Naked."

Similarly, no pre-programmed drum tracks or horns were required to ignite such catchy Heads nuggets as "Once in a Lifetime" and "The Road to Nowhere." Equally hummable were "Daddy Go Down" and "Back in the Box," two recent solo numbers that proved Byrne can still write good pop songs.

Byrne and his four-piece band entertained and enlightened in ways that few other pop bands can. Really, who else presents such thought-provoking, party-ready art?

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