Singer David Byrne ends his cel­e­bra­tory re­cent con­certs with a sober­ing song about mi­nor­ity vic­tims of vi­o­lence

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Af­ter he burns down the house dur­ing his cur­rent con­cert tour, singer David Byrne ends each show on a se­ri­ous note with a song that calls at­ten­tion to mi­nor­ity vic­tims of vi­o­lence.

The Janelle Monae cover, “Hell You Talm­bout,” is a rhyth­mic chant that re­calls peo­ple like Fred­die Gray, Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner and Sharonda Sin­gle­ton. Gray died af­ter a rough ride in a Bal­ti­more po­lice van, Martin was the Florida teen shot by some­one who thought he looked sus­pi­cious, Garner died af­ter be­ing put in a choke­hold by New York po­lice and Sin­gle­ton was killed in the Charleston, South Carolina, church shoot­ing.

The band’s com­mand: “Say his (or her) name.”

It’s a bold choice for a 66-year-old white man play­ing to venues illed with peo­ple of a sim­i­lar age and back­ground. The for­mer Talk­ing Heads front­man is get­ting some of the best re­views of his ca­reer for a strik­ingly in­no­va­tive show where he’s joined by a bare­foot band that wears its in­stru­ments and is kept con­stantly on the move by whim­si­cal chore­og­ra­phy.

Monae wrote “Hell You Talm­bout” in 2015 and never ofi­cially re­leased it, although video of her per­form­ing it cir­cu­lated on­line. “Talm­bout” is meant as a con­trac­tion of “talk­ing about.” Byrne said he saw a stream of it and loved it in­stantly.

“Here was a protest song that doesn’t hec­tor or preach at us,” he said. “It sim­ply asks us to re­mem­ber and ac­knowl­edge th­ese lives that have been lost, lives that were taken from us through in­jus­tice, though the song leaves that for the lis­tener to put to­gether. I love a drum line, so that as­pect of the song sucked me in im­me­di­ately as well. The song mu­si­cally is a cel­e­bra­tion and lyri­cally a eu­logy. Beau­ti­ful.”

Byrne, whose pen­chant for un­ex­pected cover choices has in­cluded Whit­ney Hous­ton’s “I Want to Dance with Some­body,” knew he wanted to per­form it. He wrote to Monae, ask­ing how she’d feel about an older, white guy tak­ing it on.

“If she had said, ‘hmmm, I dunno,’ I would not have per­formed it,” he said.

Monae, who’s 32, gave her bless­ing.

“I was moved that he reached out and asked if he could in­clude the song in his show,” Monae said. “I thought that was so kind of him and of course I said yes. The song’s mes­sage and names men­tioned need to be heard by ev­ery au­di­ence.”

Byrne said he likes that it’s not a in­ger-wag­ging song.

“I’m not ac­cus­ing my au­di­ence of any­thing by per­form­ing it,” he said. “Other songs in the set al­lude to pol­i­tics and in­jus­tice, but this one re­ally says, ‘We’ve en­ter­tained you, we are all hav­ing a great time, but there is this as well. Let’s not for­get the times we live in.’”

Byrne brings his show to a cli­max with Talk­ing Heads’ songs “Burn­ing Down the House” and “The Great Curve,” and the au­di­ence roars with ap­proval. The re­ac­tion to “Talm­bout” at a re­cent New York gig was notably qui­eter, although there was no au­di­ble hos­til­ity. Some au­di­ence mem­bers have seemed con­fused by it, par­tic­u­larly at over­seas shows.

Be­fore the song be­gins, he of­ten thanks Monae for let­ting him per­form it, and up­date it with ad­di­tional names.

His one fear was that peo­ple would see the song as anti-po­lice, but Byrne said he hasn’t seen that.

“The re­ac­tion in gen­eral has been good, though af­ter the pre­vi­ous cel­e­bra­tory en­core it is a lit­tle sober­ing,” he said. “The au­di­ence can’t re­sist the groove, but they are not wig­gling all over the place, ei­ther. They en­joy it, but re­alise it’s a re­minder of the real world be­fore they head home.”

David Byrne, (left) and Janelle Monae

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