POP MUSIC REVIEW : Byrne-ing Down the Wiltern


Desi Arnaz . . . Charo . . . Gloria Estefan . . . David Byrne.

Ersatz avant-guy Byrne may seem like an unlikely culmination of any kind of mainstream tradition. But in moments of his show on Monday at the Wiltern Theatre, the former Talking Heads leader might have been interchangeable with any of his famous predecessors in bringing Latin sounds to the masses, so far aside did he sometimes set the neurotic tension he's famous for.

When he got loose and sweatily did the shimmy-and-shake in front of the horn section, you remembered less the goofy post-modernist in the big suit than you thought of Xavier Cugat doing the funky chicken for Merv Griffin.

Not that the two-hour concert (a benefit for selected AIDS organizations) focused on Byrne's world-beat inclinations at the expense of Talking Heads traditionalism. After all, this was the tour behind the album--"Uh-Oh"--that was designed to bring his New and Nuevo Wave sides together most cohesively. Inasmuch as it accomplished that combination, it was both a bit of a travelogue and a guaranteed crowd-pleaser, though few old-timers who were witness to vintage Heads shows would claim this sequel produced the same kind of galvanization.

The set-up was quite close to "Stop Making Sense" and that performance-on-film's gradual build-up from solo act to big band. Byrne opened alone, with just an acoustic guitar and foot pedals to trigger drum tracks, lit by a couple of glaring, shadow-casting floodlights. When a violinist eventually stepped out to join him on the bridge of "Girls on My Mind," you almost expected to see Jonathan Demme riding in on a boom.

But instead of incremental additions to the lineup, the curtain plunged on a well-timed conga cue to reveal the entire nine-piece band playing "Mr. Jones," a salsa-flavored number from the final Heads album.

On the material from that record and Byrne's two subsequent solo recordings, he and the band predictably sizzled with Brazil-based glee. And then there was the dispiriting trotting-out of older Heads chestnuts--"Take Me to the River," "Burning Down the House," "Life During Wartime"--which received surprisingly minimal rearranging for the new band format, and which couldn't have sounded much more perfunctory.

The full-band portion of the performance ended with a second encore of "Sympathy for the Devil," which Byrne managed to make his own with his triple percussionists and a succession of funny falsetto voices ("Because I'm in need of some restraint, Mickey!" he actually squeaked). Symmetrically enough, the players dropped away again during the third and fourth encore calls, with just the horn section sitting in on "And She Was," and Byrne back to his lonesome for "Psycho Killer" and "Heaven."

Byrne's band--which included longtime arranger-trumpeter Angel Fernandez, Cuban percussionist Oscar Salas and ex-Meters bassist George Porter Jr.--comes phenomenally credentialed, and didn't disappoint on its own terms. So why did Byrne's solo spots somehow seem more impressive?

The purposeful mismatch of these essentially jubilant Latin styles with Byrne's existential nervousness is good for ironic tension, but the hybrid has its limitations. Though Byrne offers a terrific vacation, finally you end up wanting to experience the tour guide and the scenery independent of each other again.

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