David Byrne

Live in Austin TX

(New West Records; 2007)

By Dom Sinacola | 8 December 2007

Gun to my head, I'd have to admit that David Byrne is my idol. Just look into his smoky pupils:

The guy sparks something magical in me. I would so fuck those eyes.

Few heroes are available to my generation; Salman Rushdie has that fatwa out on him so he's mostly inaccessible to me as a fan, and Jasper Johns is too old. Noam Chomsky uses too many big words. He must sit down with a Thesaurus and study it. Prince is done for.

So if Byrne means anything to me, he's that Great Ego for my demographic. Both a nerd and a playboy unstuck by humility, he's a true artist I'm okay emulating. Because I want to be lusted after: dude only wants to be liked and recognized and magnanimous, even as he sits regal atop our ever-emerging canon. Yes, Byrne's a Renaissance Man for all us young, heaving masses, but his populist tendencies make him an Idol, never too important a critical ground zero to give all his fans, young and old and miles between, exactly what they want. More importantly, Byrne's prowess spans generations, so the feat of him even simply knowing what fans young, old, and miles in between all want at any point in his thirty-year career is amazing in itself. I don't know what they want, but he knows what I want.

As an ultimate, ageless stud, he's bound to come up short at some point: He writes blogs and hosts web radio shows and makes installation art and scores and curates and collects and manages and for each of these occupations he sustains a sagacious rigor. At times his pursuits seem obligatory, but only at the mercy of an already obligatory market, like when he became involved with Creative Commons for the release of the My Life in the Bush of Ghosts reissue (2006), offering up single tracks from a few songs to illustrate, partly, how easy us electronic mixers have it nowadays compared to back-when, and then to assert that Our Man Byrne knows exactly where the music industry's headed even though that shock of gray hair could portend otherwise. In other words, we can cut him a break for a few sidesteps. Good thing, because Live From Austin TX, the inevitable release of a 2001 show hyping Byrne's then ubiquitous Look Into the Eyeball, is lackluster and mildly pedantic, mostly because it doesn't subvert or raise any expectations for the performer. It just sort of pleasantly exists.

David Byrne has participated in two great live albums (with Talking Heads) and one pretty great live DVD (solo, for Nonesuch, culled from the Grown Backwards [2004] tour) and what each of those releases documented was a musician at a certain height in his or her powers, a thick studio presence reborn as a mighty, visceral entity, a performer entirely in control of the moment as the performer simultaneously assures the listener that the performer would be in control in many similar moments. So Live From Austin TX is not a great live album, only a decent one, because the tour following the release of Look Into the Eyeball did not demonstrate a David Byrne at the height of his David Byrne Powers. In fact, Look Into the Eyeball is not even a great David Byrne studio album, just a consolidation of influences -- of the "world" moniker so beaten to a pulp in Byrne's fastidious shadow -- more comfortable than anything prodigal in genre coverage. Gone was the sense of excitement in discovery from albums like Rei Momo (1989) or Lead us Not Into Temptation (2003), both of which expressed everything idolatrous about Byrne: everything exoticist, ambitious, and arrogant released commercially.

Austin does seem shallow by most Byrne standards. It's packaged stupidly and setlisted with a mouse-brain creativity, mixed thinly with Byrne's vocals and the occasional strange drum tic slapped at the front, and paraded onto shelves with a few paragraphs that basically describe what you already know: Mr. David Byrnes imbues "a variety of styles and influences, from Philly soul to a D.C. go-go inspired groove" even though you know that whatever touchstones are mentioned, it'll all eventually get filed under "World Music" so words don't matter anyway. And I bought it for something like nineteen bucks. What is this live album even attempting to catalogue if four of its thirteen cuts are from a mediocre David Byrne album, six tracks are Talking Heads covers (diction intended), and one's a cover? Live From Austin TX is cataloguing a TV show, that's all, soundtracking an episode of Austin City Limits sans all the verve and splendor of Byrne's actual show. It sounds filtered through a dusty Toshiba 36". I demand that you give me my money back, PBS. After all, I own you.

Fortunately, a few excellent tracks keep the disc from settling into utter shame. Backed by a disarmingly lithe string section care of Austin's own Tosca Strings, Byrne's reimagining of "This Must Be the Place" attains sugary highs in the coda alone. Similarly, "Life During Wartime" is bloated to candied extremes, allowed to manifest as epically as it deserves but never could in its original guise, and then "Desconocido Soy" takes another route, losing a couple fingers of its industrial fuzz and roar (yeah, it had those things) to getaway with something wholly bittersweet and worried to the bone. And "I Wanna Dance With Somebody" is just so fucking dopey, so sincere, that the plangent bongos, overbearing string section, and immutable Byrne warble seem to prelate and encapsulate everything mystifying and infuriating about Whitney Houston, including her crack-addled contemporary self.

Mostly, though, Live From Austin TX admits that a solo David Byrne owes a non-solo David Byrne to his fans and goes far enough to reproduce his hits with nothing besides quirky vocal inflections and a hardier riff or drum or violin fill to discern the young from the old. The unforgivable offender is "Once in a Lifetime"; how many versions of this have you heard? This is probably the worst, despite it being the same song as it ever was, replete with the most obnoxious David Byrne "voice" ever put to tape, somewhere between Kermit the Frog and Pat from Saturday Night Live, and, as always (sorry, Mr. Belew, my heart still longs for your embrace), topped by a wanky, screeching guitar solo that could have leaked out of CC DeVille's closet. At this point, the tracklist goes from kinda boring to pitifully drafted.

Because Live From Austin TX or no Live From Austin TX, Byrne'll reveal another empirical scheme, another clever something in the near future, and this reasonably good collection of live tunes will blow amicably away, as they may have done already. For sure, you don't need me writing a review to remind you of what to expect out of David Byrne. And you probably don't need this album to do that either. David Byrne already knows what you expect out of David Byrne, so for David Byrne to expect that David Byrne fans want something so thoroughly underachieving and unflattering as far as live David Byrne goes, he's got to have another thing coming.