David Byrne is about the closest thing modern pop music has to Woody Allen’s “Zelig.” He’s traversed the landscapes of new wave, tribal dance and Brasiliana, absorbing plenty but leaving barely a footprint in his wake — taking on many forms while maintaining an amorphous nature that’s virtually impossible to grab hold of.
Judging by his first New York appearance in many a moon, Byrne now seems interested in being seen as a workaday Everyman. That image was underscored not only by the matching mechanic uniforms he and his bandmates donned for the gig, but by the evening’s hit-laden repertoire — a far cry from the artful envelope-pushing that usually marks Byrne’s perfs in his adopted hometown.
His audience seemed perfectly content with this state of affairs, particularly when the singer-guitarist played close to the vest on straight-ahead replications of Talking Heads tunes such as “And She Was” and “Nothing but Flowers.”
Yes, Byrne and band — a backing trio that was augmented by a string section at the 90-minute set’s midway point — spent some time on songs from his new Virgin album, “Look Into the Eyeball.” But those numbers were doled out sparingly, with little of the elaboration that might have helped, say, “The Great Intoxication” — a disjointed tune that put a bohemian spin on the midlife-crisis plaint.
More bucolic, newer songs — especially “Desconocido Soy” and “Like Humans Do” — sounded tentative, with Byrne relying a bit too heavily on the string section to keep things moving. On the other hand, “U B Jesus” — presented near the end of the set — positively blistered as Byrne shook and stirred eroticism and spirituality with tension to spare.
While most of his peers have grown mellower, backing away from the edge of earlier output, Byrne seems very comfortable with his most bracing material. As such, he was eager to get the light-hearted ditties out of the way to concentrate on more brooding pieces, notably excerpts from “The Catherine Wheel” and a surprisingly fierce, atonal take on “Once in a Lifetime.”
Then again, Byrne also proved willing to borrow a trick from his estranged allies in the Tom Tom Club; he dipped into purely mindless pleasure at encore time, enthusiastically leading audience and band through an extended sing-a-long version of Whitney Houston’s “I Wanna Dance With Somebody Who Loves Me.”
David Byrne plays the El Rey Theater in Los Angeles June 1.