In 1984’s Stop Making Sense, Talking Heads frontman David Byrne mesmerized viewers with a stage presence that combined spasm-wracked geekiness with a large dose of space alien funk. There are numerous moments in Stop Making Sense that deserve to be in a time capsule of live music video footage: Byrne’s wild-ass lurching staggers across the stage during the blasts of machine gun rhythms in “Psycho Killer”. The electroshock therapy boogaloo of “Once in a Lifetime”. And “Girlfriend Is Better”, which changed the world forever, rendering any male who dons a big-shouldered suit coat incapable of resisting the urge to sway their hips and bop their head like some weird jungle bird mating ritual. Ain’t no doubt about it, boys and girls: the film is a classic.
Fast forward to Ride, Rise, Roar which captures Byrne live during the 2008/09 “Songs of David Byrne & Brian Eno” tour. There are no Talking Heads in sight except for Byrne, and a quarter of a century or so has been added to the man’s body – but you know what?
The son of a gun is still as weirdly funky as he ever was – and maybe even more so.
The present-day Byrne – silver-haired, clad in white, and brandishing a cream-colored Stratocaster – might look a little bit like your Uncle Ned, but when he ricochets off the backbone of a tune, chunking out a rhythm riff while twisting his body to the song’s pulse, he’s timeless and cool in an everybody-can-dance-if-they-let-themselves sort of way.
The music on Ride, Rise, Roar (beautifully recorded, by the way) concentrates on tunes from the Eno/Heads collaborations of the late 70s/early 80s and the Byrne/Eno Everything That Happens Will Happen Today album released in 2008. The personnel listing looks surprisingly sparse, with the dancers and background singers (three each) outnumbering the musicians – including Byrne, who holds down the guitar berth. Fear not, though: this is an ensemble that thrives on the groove – when things are cooking, Byrne and company are simply one big ol’ rhythm beast.
Woven between the tunes is footage shot during rehearsals as well as interviews with some of the dancers and musicians. We’re even treated to some face time with Eno and Byrne – the former coming off as a warm, humble genius; the latter coming off as, well, David Byrne. (The fact that Byrne usually looks like he’s anxiously waiting for a pickup by the mothership is just one of the many reasons why you gotta love him. Selfishly, I hope they hold off taking him back to the other planet for a while longer.)
The between-song conversations with the dancers give you an idea of how much they enjoyed working with Byrne. He made them be part of the band, rather than window dressing – their motion is as much an instrument as the percussion that drives the music.
Case in point: toward the end of the opener “Once in a Lifetime,” dancers Lily Baldwin, Natalie Kuhn, and Steven Reker move in a manner that’s both Byrne-herky-jerky and as lovely as the water described in the song’s chorus. As Byrne swings into his “Same as it ever was” chant, the dancers cluster and then break; while Byrne testifies like a Sunday-morning evangelist, the trio circles and swoops behind him with Reker leap-frogging over Kuhn’s shoulders. The dancers regroup, constantly in motion as Byrne’s words build in their intensity, then go tear-assing off again (watch as Byrne gives the volume knob on his Strat a last-second twist) and Reker launches himself over Baldwin, landing the instant that Byrne bangs out a magnificent power chord. The absolute joy on the dancers’ faces is great – and even Byrne seems more animated and looser than we’ve ever seen him as he does a geeky Crumb strut across the stage. Baldwin and Kuhn sway deeply to the Strat’s bellow as Reker takes off on another mad dash and – is he really? YES! – flies over Byrne’s hunched shoulders as the guitar roars, the bass shakes the air, and the drums bang out a rhythm that is pure life. Reker spins as he lands; he grins at Byrne – and, yes, by Jesus – Byrne grins back. There’s only a flash, but it’s enough. And it’s great.
By introducing us to a world of his own creation all those years ago, David Byrne is in the unique position of being a performing musician who will never resemble a caricature of himself as he ages. He doesn’t have time to – he’s still creating a world. Ride, Rise, Roar is the proof.
Same as it ever was.