David Byrne Shepherd's Bush Empire, London; LIVE REVIEW

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The Independent Culture
David Byrne is giving us his pyscho stare. He's dressed in a furry pink suit, and his skin is slick with sweat. It looks as if he's had doll's eyes implanted, or glass eyes. He looks half-blind; he looks like an alien. They're probably just contact lenses. You could think they were a cheesy trick. But, like the several costume changes tonight, which amount to a slow strip from fur to shirt to an encore in which he looks mournfully out from a costume of a body flayed of skin, the lenses suggest David Byrne, the cool collector of world music, is no longer in the building. New Age hippy Byrne has been banished, too. He's been replaced by someone resembling the punk Byrne who led Talking Heads when they were the most modern band in America. Almost everyone in the venue is old enough to remember that vanished time, to want a little of it back. As Byrne has just released his best solo album, Feelings, expectations are high. But it's not clear, at first, if Byrne knows in which direction to meet them.

One of the splendours of Feelings, after all, is its interest in everything pop has to offer, from jungle to soca. The problem for much of this evening is that, with the sort of "tight" funk-rock band so beloved of ageing legends, many songs degenerate into overstretched grooves. And, so diverse is the material being played that it's hard to feel a sense of momentum. There are almost constant echoes of the Eighties, reminders of how much a part of their times Talking Heads, seemingly so futuristic, really were. There are stranger sounds, too; intimations of hip hop, Hawaiian music and country. The problem is that none of it moves the audience as it should. He's not letting us down, but neither are we being raised up. Nothing seems to be at risk.

It's only when the show is three-quarters over that Byrne creates something that matters. He plays his new single, "Miss America", and it's obvious that it's one of the best of his career. He starts in a stately tango with his dancer, then he's singing the words, a bitter, funny valentine to his homeland, while underneath soca rhythms so joyous they could forgive Vietnam make him sway back and forth, transported. Byrne doesn't play anything else as good until the very end. Then he gives a glimpse of something more he may have in reserve. Latin beats and looped diva yells take him into a techno orbit, extending his synthesised past into something that could almost be the future. The audience, surprisingly, are enchanted. They still want to be modern, too.