David Byrne and All-Star Band Hit the Sweet Spot at Tribute to Nigerian Composer: Concert Review

David Byrne and Onyebour - H 2014
Randall Michelson

David Byrne and Onyebour - H 2014

A joyous celebration of William Onyeabor’s synth-driven African groove performed by an eclectic line-up featuring members of Hot Chip, Bloc Party, LCD Soundsystem and Sinkane.

A joyous celebration of William Onyeabor’s synth-driven African groove performed by an eclectic line-up featuring members of Hot Chip, Bloc Party, LCD Soundsystem and Sinkane.

If you’ve given up on David Byrne because he won’t succumb to rock’s seemingly ubiquitous temptation to celebrate the past by bringing back the Talking Heads… well, it’s time to stop making sense.

Renaissance man Byrne, last seen at this very venue collaborating with alternative darling St. Vincent, returned to the Greek on a breezy spring night with his latest project, “Atomic Bomb: Who Is William Onyeabor?,” an all-star tribute to the work of a resurrected Nigerian synth-funk pioneer who made eight hard-to-find records from 1978 through 1985, and has apparently stopped making any music since, after declaring himself a born-again Christian.

Onyeabor is a bit of an enigmatic figure, some accounts claiming he studied cinematography in the Soviet Union, while others insist he was a lawyer with a degree from a university in Great Britain. Upon returning to Nigeria in the mid-‘70s, he started his own film company, Wilfilms, that never actually put out a movie, but soon became a wealthy businessman, thanks to several lucrative government contracts, enough to ensconce him in a crumbling palace in the jungle outside Enugu.

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An A&R exec from Byrne’s world music Luaka Bop label took four years to track down Onyeabor for permission to release last year’s compilation,World Psychedelic Classics 5: Who Is William Onyeabor? In the absence of the tribute’s subject, who doesn’t venture far from his home, an all-star band was organized, featuring Byrne, tenor sax star Joshua Redman, Hot Chip’s Alexis Taylor, Bloc Party’s Kele Okereke, LCD Soundsystem drummer Pat Mahoney and Beastie Boys synth player Money Mark, rounded out by Brooklyn world music group Sinkane’s Ahmed Gallab, and legendary Nigerian duo the Lijadu Sisters. That troupe, picking up other musicians in each city, have just completed a three-city tour that took them to BAM in New York, San Francisco’s Warfield Theater, and last night, the Greek.

Sporting the kind of red cowboy hat favored by the flamboyant Onyeabor, Byrne doesn’t even taken the stage until five songs in, with the charismatic Gallab leads the group through its paces on the opening “Body & Soul,” from the 1980 album of the same name by the Nigerian Igbo singer/songwriter, who tempered the tribal funk beat with space-age synthesizers (here played by a showboating Money Mark) that prefigured much of today’s EDM. It’s no surprise why Byrne was attracted to this sound – equal parts Baptist gospel preacher, square dance caller, EMD DJ, disco fever and irresistible, multi-leveled Afro-pop.  Gallab then launches into the Marley-esque “Why Go to War,” a utopian theme that Onyeabor returns to frequently in his music.

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Hot Chip’s unlikely blue-eyed soul crooner Taylor saunters on to duet with Gallab on “Good Name,” then on “Atomic Bomb,” comically exchanges some sultry flirting with the Lijadus, resplendent in glittering purple and gold gowns, bringing to mind Woody Allen trading verses with the Supremes, the gurgling garage-band organ resembling nothing so much as the African version of “96 Tears.”  “I’m gonna explode,” sings Taylor, and we’re suddenly caught up in the undulating beat until time stands still and we’re transported by the primal groove.

Byrne takes the stage for “Love Me Now,” a combination of the fundamentalist reverend of “Once in a Lifetime” and the guy leading a hoedown in True Stories, followed by Bloc Party singer Okereke, resplendent in an African dashiki, leads the band through a ska--flavored “Heaven & Hell,” complete with chunky horns, Gallab’s staccato piano riffs and a breathless Redman tenor sax solo which brings down the house.

The Lijadu Sisters take the stage for a two-song interlude, “Danger” and “Life’s Gone Down Low,” though their vocals were mixed a little too low to make the kind of impact their infectious energy deserved.

“Please tell me, tell me, tell me, tell me how I look,” gurgles Byrne, his suit and tie offering a Hank Williams Grand Ole Opry vibe in combination with his 10-gallon topper, teasing the Lijadu gals in “Fantastic Man,” as they answer, “You look so good, fantastic man,” like Billy Crystal channeling Ricardo Montalban on Saturday Night Live, the song spilling out into some weird mix of Tex-Mex, roller rink skating music and Latin dance rhythms.

Kele returns for a climactic “Love is Blind” that bring everyone together in a sacred, call-and-response benediction, the spiritual taking over as the music seeps into our collective soul, space and time suspended along with judgment as sheer momentum powers the undulating mass, who’ve been on their feet for the entire show. As Parliament-Funkadelic might’ve put it, “Free your mind and your ass will follow.”

The encore begins with the cathartic “Better Change Your Mind,” Byrne, Gallab and Okereke joining in on what amounts to a revival meeting, hands in the air, leading to the all-on-board closer, “Smooth & Good,” a soaring rouser that elicits a closing chant, of “higher, higher, higher, higher" that reverberates through the engaged crowd, Money Mark raising his portable keyboard over his head in triumph, the full group taking bows center-stage.

An exhilarating night of music that truly lifted us, and at least sonically answered the question, “Who is William Onyeabor?” with a resounding tribute that must have resonated across the globe to the man himself, ensconced somewhere back in his Nigerian homeland.

Set list

Body & Soul (Ahmed Gallab)
Why Go to War (Gallab)
Good Name (Ahmed & Alexis Taylor)
Atomic Bomb (Alexis and Lijadus Sisters)
Love Me Now (David Byrne)
Heaven  & Hell (Kele Okereke)
Danger (Lijadus Sisters)
Life’s Gone Down Low” (Lijadus Sisters)
Fantastic Man (Byrne)
Love is Blind (Okereke)


Better Change Your Mind (Byrne, Okereke, Gallab)
Smooth & Good (all)