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10 years after 'Stop,' Byrne goes for light

About halfway into "Between the Teeth," a 70-minute concert film of David Byrne and his nine-piece band shot in October 1992, the camera pulls back into the crowd, bright white light suffuses the stage, the band dips into Mr. Byrne's "Hanging Upside Down," and for what seems like the first time in the film, actual color -- in this case the brilliant red and blue of Bobby Allende's conga drums -- leaps out from the screen.

"We're all just dressed in black, like a bunch a funeral directors," says Mr. Byrne with a laugh, speaking over the phone from his home in New York. "All the lighting is white. It could almost be a black-and-white film."

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At times, "Between the Teeth," which shows at 11:15 tonight at the Baltimore Museum of Art as part of the Baltimore International Film Festival, has the monochromatic look and feel of a non-color film, with its emphasis on stark lighting, dramatic close-ups and brief blackouts between songs.

But Mr. Byrne and his band, the tight and polished 10 Car Pile-Up -- with him on guitar and vocals, augmented by bass, keyboards, a drummer, two percussionists and a four-piece horn section -- behave like anything but funeral directors. They sway, smile, jive and bop in place through 15 songs. All but one of the songs are drawn from Mr. Byrne's extensive recording career: his late-'70s-to-mid-'80s stint as singer/songwriter/guitarist for Talking Heads, his late-'80s experiments with Latin music, and his 1992 solo album, "Uh-Oh."

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With "Between the Teeth," Mr. Byrne and co-director David Wild (he worked as editor on a number of Talking Heads videos) pump new life into the moldering concert-film genre by playing with camera techniques.

"We came up with a variety of camera approaches for each song," explains Mr. Byrne, who grew up in Arbutus. For example, during "Something Ain't Right," the camera zooms in for tight close-ups of him and the band. On "Life During Wartime," they opt for a jittery, roller-coaster ride, with cameras flying frenetically all over the place as strobe lights strafe the band. And on "Women Versus Men," eerie lighting illuminates only Mr. Byrne and his band members' faces, creating a tense, menacing effect.

Mr. Byrne and Mr. Wild worked out all the mechanics of the shooting in advance. "We figured out what songs not to bother filming," Mr. Byrne says, noting that the film represents only about two-thirds of the hour-and-45-minute concert played at the Count Basie Theater in Red Bank, N.J. "And we arranged the set so that every third song the cameras were reloading. That way, we didn't have to stop. It was a little bit risky because we didn't bother trying to get the more conservative kinds of shots. . . . It worked out fine."

For all the film's cinematic inventiveness, Mr. Byrne understands people will compare "Between the Teeth" to "Stop Making Sense," director Jonathan Demme's much-heralded 1984 concert film of Talking Heads.

"I thought I was asking for trouble, in a way, after 'Stop Making Sense,' " Mr. Byrne admits. "It got such great reviews, and it still holds up pretty well."

But it had been eight years since that film, which caught Talking Heads at the height of their popularity. Since then, Mr. Byrne left Talking Heads and discovered Latin music, which he tapped into on his salsa-in-flected 1989 album, "Rei Momo."

He opens the film alone on stage, singing Captain Beefheart's "Well" and Talking Heads' "Nothing But Flowers." And he closes the film alone again, this time performing one of Talking Heads' biggest hits, "Road to Nowhere."

But "Between the Teeth" generates the most heat when the band tears into the pulsating, percussive, horn-peppered "Lie to Me," with Mr. Byrne's moving from band member to band member, introducing each for a quick solo blast.

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Unlike in "Stop Making Sense," when director Demme showed only the band on stage -- in effect, capturing a Talking Heads concert as pure performance for film-goers instead of documenting the entire concert environment -- "Between the Teeth" acknowledges the crowd in attendance. Still, Mr. Byrne and Mr. Wild wait several songs into the film before pulling back from the stage to show the audience.

"When you show the audience cheering too early," Mr. Byrne says, "it feels like you're telling the television viewer or film viewer: 'You're supposed to be liking this now. You're supposed to be excited like these people are.' And I don't think people like that. I know I don't. I don't like to be told what I'm supposed to be feeling by a movie, so we figured we'd wait until as late as possible [to show the crowd], when we hoped people were already into it."

While "Between the Teeth" touches on most of Mr. Byrne's past pop-music incarnations, it also gives a glimpse of the "something else" he said he planned to move on to.

After dousing the crowd with a rousing "Blind" and a soaring "And She Was," the band exits, leaving Mr. Byrne alone on stage with only his guitar to play a new song, "Buck Naked," which contains the great line, "We're all naked if you turn us inside out." That song shows up on his new solo album, simply titled "David Byrne," due in May.

"The parts of the film where you really hear the song -- and hear what the words are and what I'm saying -- are the ones where it's just me and the guitar," says Mr. Byrne. "The other stuff is exciting, but you're not getting what the song's about."

Accordingly, Mr. Byrne says he has "stripped back down to a four-piece" for the new album. The new album's songs "are less character studies," he says. "I've always done songs with imaginary characters. This is less of that, and I tried to say this is more of what I really feel, what I really believe."

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Mr. Byrne says he and the band will play warmup dates in mid-May in advance of a full-fledged tour to support the new album.

LISTEN TO BYRNE

To hear excerpts of David Byrne's "Rei Momo," call Sundial, The Sun's telephone information service, at (410) 783-1800. In Anne Arundel County, call 268-7736; in Harford County, 836-5028; in Carroll County, 848-0338. Using a touch-tone phone, punch in 6235 after the greeting.

'Between the Teeth'

Where: Baltimore International Film Festival, Baltimore Museum of Art

When: 11:15 tonight

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Cost: $6 general admission; $5 for seniors, students

Call: (410) 235-0100


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