It's encore time at the Strand nightclub, and for a few eerie moments David Byrne seems to shuffle around the stage without his flesh.
The former frontman for Talking Heads, and one of rock's most charmingly inventive weirdos, Byrne is wearing a head-to-toe bodysuit of painted-on muscle and bone. With the lights dimmed, it looks as if the guy on the cover of "Gray's Anatomy" has come to life and is searching hard for a Bufferin and a glass of water. "I can't seem to face up to the facts," he deadpans to the crowd of about 2,000. "I'm tense and nervous and I can't relax."
The melody is familiar, but the delivery is new. When Byrne sang "Psycho Killer" in 1977 he came off as a jittery neurotic who was this close to actually cracking. Now 45, Byrne has turned the tune into ghoulish, witty theater.
"I'm less a tense-and-nervous-can't-relax kind of guy," said Byrne the morning after the show, groggily sipping coffee in a hotel restaurant. "I think I'm much more inclusionary, bringing new ideas and stuff in. And I'm not as shy as I used to be."
For the first time in his two-decade career, Byrne finally seems comfortable in his skin. Touring in support of his fifth and finest solo record, "Feelings," he has shed much of the ethereal diffidence and edgy intensity he's radiated since his varied adventures as a pop star and multimedia artist began. A Baltimorean during his teenage years, he returns to the area tonight to play Wolf Trap.
Melding elements of new wave, funk, African tribal rhythms and whatever else caught his ear, Byrne has spent much of the past 20 years crafting records as playfully befuddling as they are danceable. First with Talking Heads and later as a solo artist, his music seemed to offer listeners several options: They could puzzle over the semi-sensical lyrics, try to decipher Byrne's cryptic onstage mannerisms, or just hit the floor and boogie.
He has also collaborated with avant-garde artists like composer Philip Glass and choreographer Twyla Tharp, and starred in the much-acclaimed 1984 concert film "Stop Making Sense." In 1986 he directed his own movie, "True Stories," and the following year won an Academy Award for his soundtrack for Bernardo Bertolucci's "The Last Emperor." Throughout it all, he has projected that oddest of public personas: the introverted celebrity.
Staring at his bowl of yogurt and raspberries, Byrne still occasionally resembles an unblinking mad scientist who'd rather be in his lab. But more than a decade after he showed up on the cover of Time magazine, anointed as "Rock's Renaissance Man," he sounds more at peace with fame's klieg lights than ever.
"Getting onstage was a form of compensation for a long time," he said, looking the same as he ever was, with just a few flecks of gray intruding on his close-cropped dark hair. "It's as though shy people need to perform or they're going to pick up a gun and kill a bunch of people, or do something obsessive like write a great novel. I guess today when I'm up there, I'm compensating for something else -- like having to live a normal life."
Normal might be overstating it. Byrne has some trappings of normality these days, including a wife, Bonny Lutz, and an 8-year-old daughter named Malu. When he isn't touring the world, he lives in Manhattan and helps run Luaka Bop, a label he founded in 1988 to produce his music and those of worldbeat acts he likes.
As he comes out of his shell and into middle age, however, Byrne is making few concessions to conventionality. Family values be damned -- the man is a full-time itinerant artist, spending most of his days combing the globe for new influences to blend into his music and new artists to record. A collection of photographs taken during his wanderings, culled from his 1995 book "Strange Ritual," is now touring museums.
"My wife puts up with a lot of crap," he said with an impish grin. "But if I had a regular 9-to-5 job, I'd go nuts."
Unlike a lot of aging hipsters and rock icons who run out of ideas when they grow up, Byrne is brimming with new projects. And judging from the crowd that showed up to dance, sing along and gawk for the opening night of the tour, he also has a new audience to confuse. Many of the fans at the Providence show weren't even born in 1975, the year that Byrne, along with Chris Frantz and Tina Weymouth, formed Talking Heads a few blocks away at the Rhode Island School of Design. Others said they were introduced to his music by, of all people, their parents.
"Everybody should be so hip when they get that old," said twentysomething Amanda Grogan, after the show was over.
To fans who remember the elaborate stagecraft and minyan of musicians from "Stop Making Sense," the new show will seem as spare as karaoke. Lacking the finances for a huge production and no longer hitting the charts, Byrne focuses the audience's visual attention on his own eye-grabbing costumes and perplexing gestures. The result is a 1 1/2-hour set that proves that few spectacles are quite as entertaining as an intelligent man doing something silly.
Accompanied by a three-piece band and a single backup singer, he arrived in a two-piece suit of fluffy, hot-pink angora and belted out a tic-filled version of "Once in a Lifetime," a 1980 Talking Heads hit. Later, he donned a kilt and a green T-shirt for his salsa-flavored new single, "Miss America," swishing his hips like Ricky Ricardo doing a rumba in a skirt.
"Rather than carrying around all the elaborate scenery and paraphernalia that I've sometimes used in the past and can't really afford now, I decided that I would just have a bunch of costumes made," he said. "I figured that I could just wear the set, and the whole thing would fit in a trunk."
An equally original -- and economical -- concept spawned the 13 songs on "Feelings." After making about 20 rough-cut song demos, he sent the tunes to musician-producers he admires, including the British trip-hop trio Morcheeba, Seattle's Black Cat Orchestra and sci-fi popsters Devo. All were invited to choose a few songs that they liked enough to help him record. Then he traveled to their studios and together they laid down the tracks.
If that sounds like the recipe for a messy hodgepodge, the surprise is that "Feelings" is easily Byrne's most irresistible solo record to date. It has heartfelt ballads (the lushly orchestrated torch song "They Are in Love"), a guitar thrasher ("The Gates of Paradise") and several futuristic-feeling dance numbers ("Miss America," "Dance on Vaseline"). Even when the talent for hooks and melodies falters, his non sequitur observations intrigue. ("When dogs make love they don't look at themselves/ Checking out each other by the way they smell," he explains in "Burnt by the Sun.")
Much credit for the album's sound belongs to the members of Morcheeba, who played the instruments and programmed the beats for six of the songs. When guitarist Ross Godfrey heard through his agent that Byrne wanted to collaborate, he assumed it was a hoax.
"We were flabbergasted because we've been huge fans of his for years," said Godfrey, who at 21 could pass for Byrne's son. "The first song that I ever recorded on a four-track was Burning Down the House' when I was 11 years old."
Godfrey and his partners quickly got past their palpitations, and within a few days of Byrne's arrival they were lampooning his eccentric ways. During the several weeks it took to record their six songs together, Byrne rode a bicycle to Morcheeba's Chelsea studio each day wearing a velvet horseback-riding helmet and black wrap-around shades. For breakfast he'd visit a nearby fish-and-chips shop and feast on a scary-looking plate of mushy green peas and sausage.
"We couldn't believe it," Godfrey said. "Not even English people would eat those peas."
The sessions with Devo were held in Los Angeles at the Mutato Muzika, the studio run by Devo member Mark Mothersbaugh, and yielded the album's most sardonic ditty, "Wicked Little Doll."
"He's much more unguarded now than he used to be," said former Devo guitarist Jerry Casales. "I think both Talking Heads and Devo had the weight of being on the cutting edge when we started. Back then, he sort of had that unapproachable-artist thing going."
As with most of Byrne's material, the lyrics on the album are curiously bereft of any sense of place -- they could as easily be about Denmark as New Jersey. It's a fitting leitmotif for a man who has been roaming ever since he could toddle. Byrne emigrated from Glasgow, Scotland, with his parents when he was 2 years old, landing first in Hamilton, Ontario, and then relocating again when his father got a job as an electrical engineer with Westinghouse in Baltimore. Byrne spent most of his adolescent years in nearby Arbutus, along with a sister, Celia.
"He had a little record player when he was 3," said his father, Tom Byrne, now retired and living in Columbia. A genial man with a thick Scottish burr, he recalls buying his son a new 45 every week. "It was a cheap little thing but it played quite well, and he was always careful not to damage the records."
As a teen, David avoided athletics, learned violin and guitar and got tossed out of the school choir because, his father says, "he couldn't sing." When he was 14, he started making his own basement tapes after his father cobbled together a makeshift recording device.
"It could stretch frequencies and mess up the sound a little bit," said the elder Byrne. "David loved it."
After high school, Byrne headed to the Maryland Institute College of Art and later the Rhode Island School of Design, where he won attention by doing such things as staging dramatic readings of game show transcripts and playing violin with a lighted candle on the end of his bow. Dropping out after two semesters, Byrne stuck around campus and met Frantz, a drummer, and his girlfriend, Weymouth, who played bass.
"We were pretty much a noisy, sloppy dance band playing downtown lofts in Providence," said Byrne. "We'd cover songs by Lou Reed or Al Green or a tune by some one-hit-wonder band. It was all for fun."
After deciding to give rock stardom a shot, the trio moved to New York in 1975, where they became regulars at CBGB, the legendary Bowery dive where American punk was incubated. They recorded a single, added keyboardist and guitarist Jerry Harrison to the lineup, and toured Europe with the Ramones.
By 1976 they had a record deal with Sire and the following year released "Talking Heads '77," an art-pop amalgam that Byrne -- quite seriously -- says was strongly influenced by KC and the Sunshine Band. Over the next decade Talking Heads made 10 albums, none of which sounded like any of the others -- from the brooding, ambient "Fear of Music" in 1979 to 1988's eclectic "Naked."
But tensions within the band simmered almost from the get-go. Frantz, Weymouth and Harrison were irked that Byrne took nearly all the songwriting credits and wouldn't incorporate their material into the band's repertoire. For his part, Byrne says he gradually found working with the same musicians a constraint.
"At first it was like having a little team out to get your music across and you can write with those musicians in mind," he said. "After a while, though, when you try something different, you realize that these players aren't always suitable for other kinds of things."
The end, which formally came in 1991, was acrimonious and eventually litigious. Byrne tried, without success, to prevent his former band-mates from performing and recording as The Heads. Last year the trio used that name for an album winkingly titled "No Talking, Just Head."
For his part, Byrne is now digging deep into his former band's back catalogue for the first time in years. Though "Feelings" has snippets of Cajun, Indian, classical and hip-hop, many of the numbers sound like Talking Heads tunes digitized for the late '90s. So Byrne has dusted off some of the band's classics, including "Road to Nowhere" and "Making Flippy Floppy." "When I toured with an all-Latin band in 1991, I was perversely thinking that I've got this thing I love and I want to do it to the hilt," he said. "What I'm doing today seems to have enough kinship with Talking Heads that I can update some of those songs."
Meanwhile, he is delighted to hit the highway for five weeks. The grind of touring doesn't faze him. The "feeling of floating and being slightly displaced" is sort of pleasant, he says, and he's perfected an on-the-road routine. Waking up on the tour bus in a new town, he gets on his bike and looks around for the most interesting industrial decay he can find, snapping a few photographs along the way.
"I manage to have a pretty civilized way of life," he says.
Byrne is also clearly reveling in pop stardom and mingling in a way that would surprise those who knew him in the '80s. "You look like David Byrne," said a passerby as Byrne was being photographed on a Providence sidewalk.
"Don't be fooled," he replied. Staff researcher Richard Drezen contributed to this report. CAPTION: Bringing down the house: David Byrne performs at the Strand in Providence, R.I., behind his solo album "Feelings." Next stop on the tour is Wolf Trap. CAPTION: Byrne with fellow Heads Chris Frantz, Tina Weymouth and Jerry Harrison. Tensions within the band appeared soon after it formed in the mid-'70s; it folded in 1991. CAPTION: David Byrne performs at the Strand in Providence, R.I., the former art student's old stamping grounds and the birthplace of Talking Heads.