Pop review: David Byrne, The Sage, Gateshead

The Sage, Gateshead

David Byrne is happy. It's not every boy from Dumbarton who forms one of the defining bands of the 70s and 80s, basically invents ambient music and sampling (along with a chap called - bet you didn't know this in full - Brian Peter George St John le Baptiste de la Salle Eno), and goes on to, among many, many other things, win an Oscar, appear on The Simpsons and be commissioned to design cycle racks for the city of New York. For some 56-year-olds, that might be enough: but David Byrne is pouring everything he's got left on to the stage of Hall One in the fabulous Gateshead Sage building, soaring scarily high above a faintly misty Tyne, and the crowd, some older even than he, is going nutso. I might be out on a limb here, but not much of a limb: I think he's happy.

Gone, entirely, are the sulky dark looks that glared out, half-angry, half-scared, from Talking Heads albums in the corners of 10,000 bedrooms. Byrne has grown into his skin, and stands tall, still whippet-thin, with white suit and white guitar and a shock of elegantly white hair; Warhol gone right. Gosh, Eno does like his thin white dukes.

This tour is, essentially, a celebration the work Byrne and Eno have done together; three Talking Heads albums, the groundbreaking My Life in the Bush of Ghosts and then last year, their first collaboration for two decades, Everything That Happens Will Happen Today. It's just Byrne on this tour, no Eno. Instead, behind Byrne, one keyboard and computer make a blizzard of complex backgrounds, one happy bassist catches and holds the ever-moving balls, and two drummers thunder up a sound that wouldn't disgrace (though it may rather surprise) a military tattoo. Byrne stands there, thrashing. Three backing singers, and three violently athletic dancers.

Two girls and a man, and they're not just there, as dancers can be, just to dance, though they do. They become, increasingly, an integral part of the show: they swap places with the backing singers, twirl them and roll them to the floor; they play instruments; they leapfrog Byrne and try to haul him from his mid-stage stance. They dance, once, on office chairs.

Increasingly as the show progresses - don't worry, we're coming to the music - it becomes clear that Byrne has planned this to be as much a visual as aural experience: every song is a photo opportunity. Band and dancers in white, spread out across the full width of the stage, three bodies cartwheeling towards Byrne as first he stands aloof in a corner and then, with one nanosecond's change of chord and spotlight, is cavorting back with them, guitar bouncing; and every finis, every last drum crash, leaves on stage a frozen tableau. It's relentlessly captivating, and the dancers get every bit as much wild applause later during the clamoured screams for what turns out to be three encores.

Byrne doesn't mention Talking Heads by name. There was a highly acrimonious split in 1991, nasty even in terms of the New York music scene. He refers simply to stuff he first did with "some other people". But that band's old hits, perhaps naturally, get the best receptions of the night. "Once in a Lifetime" goes on and on, and still not long enough, then straight into "Life During Wartime". There is something close to a sigh of relief, as well as cheers, when "Take Me to the River" finally comes during the second encore.

But the audience (which starts as staid as staid can be but ends up, pumped by two hours of restless invention, practically hanging off the balconies) has kept up with him: there are shouts of grateful recognition at the opener, "Strange Overtones", from last year's album, an absolutely moreish lament about the difficulties of songwriting. Byrne's voice is undiminished down the years. It's higher, gentler, sweeter, in fact, and with a greater range. There are very few of the faintly strangulated dipthongs of old from, say, "Psycho Killer".

Instead, there is a grand poignant warmth to his delivery of, say, "One Fine Day" (also from last year), a song - with its anthemic message of hope - which, it turns out, Byrne recently had performed in New York by the mostly octogenarian Young@Heart Chorus, surely bringing a tear or two to the hardest-hearted jaywalker.

No one does handstands on Byrne during this number, but they're back up there shortly afterwards for my personal highlight of the night, "Walking the Line", performed with such savage pizzazz that the crowd was exhausted. And increasingly enraptured.

Three encores, each time Byrne walking on looking increasingly warm, in every sense, and delighted. One encore is taken with the band all dressed, for a quite unaccountable reason, in tutus: white tutus Velcroed quickly on over jeans and suits. There is laughter, yes, but also, as the ever-moving tableau before us freezes, facing backstage on the last chord, 11 tutus lined up like ducklings, a strange delight at the beauty of tireless inventiveness.

Byrne recently took over a disused factory in New York, hooked the plumbing and girders up to a set of hydraulic pipes linked to organs, and invited the public to "play the building". He comes to London in August to do the same to the Roundhouse. The title of the most Talking-Headsy/pop-catchy track on Everything That Happens ... is "Life is Long"; and may it happily be so, Mr Byrne: but you suspect that, for him, one life is never going to be enough.

Vox pop

Mags Robertson, 42, hairdresser

It was fantastic, a privilege to watch. His material is brilliant and the dancers provided great visuals. I plan to see him again; in fact, I'm heading home now to find out his next tour date.

Sue Tyerman, 47, unemployed

My friends and I wondered whether he would change with age but he was very good and this is the third year I've seen him live. Sometimes the dancers were distracting but in other songs they felt appropriate.

Alan Smith, 53, artist

Tonight's show was invigorating; it made me feel young again. The music was excellent; I love his lyrics and that's why I particularly like "Heaven". I really like the driving sounds he produces with his guitar.

John Sturzker, 30, researcher

He was superb. He is very good at bringing old material up to date. And very impressive visually. I am a Talking Heads fan but I've never seen him alone before. The song that stood out for me was "Once in a Lifetime".

Chris Todd, 48, engineer

Excellent. I've seen him live before and each time he does a different set, but there's always a good cross-section of his work. I am very fond of Talking Heads, but I also like his new stuff a lot.

Interviews by Jessica Pickin

• Kitty Empire is on maternity leave


Euan Ferguson

The GuardianTramp

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