POP / Old fire still Byrne's

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The Independent Culture
UNLIKE his last band, David Byrne's new outfit is tight without being uptight. The Chatting Heads, perhaps. While Chris Frantz would drum with military precision, Todd Turkisher - whose name and dress sense suggest he is on day release from a thrash-metal band - splashes around on a whole junkyard of cymbals. Bassist Paul Socolow tries some Status Quo posing, despite looking like the short one from Hale & Pace. And Mauro Refosco proves a virtuoso on every percussion instrument from marimba to an object that could well be someone's first vase in a pottery class.

The group easily keep up with Byrne's musical globe-trotting, from Africa ('Once in a Lifetime') to Brazil ('Marching through the Wilderness') to Scotland (the Highland-reel guitar of 'You & Eye'). Byrne himself is swaying, bobbing, even joking. For once he is more relaxed than his audience, who wait in vain for 'Psycho Killer'. He plays only a few of the fans' favourites, and staging is kept to a minimum. Here it is, he seems to shrug, take it or leave it.

The New York new-wave neurotic has loosened up. His eponymous new album is billed as 'intimate and personal'. One track is called 'Buck Naked', but it's the emperor's new clothes in reverse. He may be 'runnin' naked like a tomcat's behind', but the esoteric persona remains. He has loosened up, not lightened up.

'Crash' is a noisy Gothic waltz. Turkisher and Refosco batter everything in sight. Byrne wrenches some Pixies guitar and chants: 'I met my love at a funeral.' Hugh Grant and Andie MacDowell would run for cover. Unless they are Talking Heads fans, in which case they would be glad to see that Byrne can still make thrilling rock music.

It is debatable whether Laurie Anderson should be included in a pop column, but not many newspapers devote a weekly space to performance art. As Anderson says, the category embraces 'just about everything you might want to do'. What she does at Sadler's Wells is read from her scrapbook, Stories from the Nerve Bible (Harper Perennial, pounds 20). Instead of the dance and back projections of her usual multi-media marathons, there's just a dimly-lit woman reciting anecdotes over an ambient synthesiser. She calls the technology 'the modern fire', and she would be perfect for a ghost-story session. She is as hypnotic as the snake in The Jungle Book. (A ouija board once told her that she had 3,691 previous incarnations, including a cow, a raccoon, a bird and a hat.)

The reminiscences are funny, eye-opening, and mostly based on encounters with foreign cultures. That includes every culture on the planet. With science-fiction bleeps echoing around her, she sounds like the narrator of The Hitch Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy. Her perspective is not just off the wall, it's off the floor. A tropical chief insisted that she eat barbecued dog - she asked if she could have it 'to go'.

There are songs, too. Anyone who remembers the mesmeric 'O Superman' knows that toe-tapping is not on the cards. 'I write a lot about driving around in cars,' she says. Time for a pedal-to-the-metal rock song? No, an electronic crash of waves while Anderson murmurs that a car passenger feels like a decaying weasel's corpse attached to the neck of a soaring eagle. A thought we've all had from time to time.

All this lateral thinking can leave you numb, but it's worth it for the humour and insights along the way. Anderson's friends Peter Gabriel and Brian Eno are sitting behind me. Gabriel sums up the show as 'brainfood'. Isn't his music brainfood? 'Aspiring brainfood,' he replies.

Maria Friedman should be light relief. She is a cabaret artiste who makes critics use words like 'pizzazz' and ask why no one writes musicals like 42nd Street any more. There is a tuxedoed orchestra, there is a young version of Elaine Paige, and here come the Sondheim numbers about this being our time, buddy, so let's take on the world and win.

But slowly you notice the arrangements: the discordant piano, the 'Venus in Furs'-style squealing strings. And you see that Friedman is not just belting out Rodgers and Hart. She reinterprets a Kate Bush song, she sobs through desolate laments from the Vilna ghetto. One minute she is a little child for a ditty about being eaten by a bear; the next she is spitting out 'I Happen to Like New York' so aggressively that you expect each phrase to be followed by 'You got a problem with that, pal?'.

By the end, Friedman has leapt into Dame Edna territory, screeching 'I'm Gorgeous' while wrapped in a feather boa. And you thought cabaret could only be daring on Channel 4. She makes Byrne and Anderson seem like the boy and girl next door.

David Byrne returns in the autumn (dates tba). Maria Friedman: Donmar, 071-867 1150, to 11 June.