No list of the best-ever concert films is complete without “Stop Making Sense,” Jonathan Demme’s 1984 coronation of Talking Heads. But four years before that landmark achievement, the band performed for the cameras in another of the most thrilling concert films of all time, “Live in Rome.”
Taped for Italian television a couple months after the release of the band’s fourth album, the Afrobeat-inspired “Remain in Light,” the Rome set is far less widely revered than “Stop Making Sense.” You can watch the full euphoric hour on YouTube, but it’s never had an official release in America.
It’s the vivid memory of that show that led former Heads multi-instrumentalist Jerry Harrison and his friend Adrian Belew, who joined the band for the “Remain in Light” sessions, to mount a tour celebrating the album’s 40th anniversary. The pandemic bumped their initial festival dates from 2020 into the following two summers. Now they’re on a tour that hits the House of Blues on Friday.
Just as he did for the original “Remain in Light” tour, which featured five additional musicians joining the core Talking Heads (Harrison, frontman David Byrne, bassist Tina Weymouth, and drummer Chris Frantz), Harrison assembled the backing band for the current tour. It features the members of Cool Cool Cool, a versatile funk band consisting of former members of Turkuaz, which launched over a decade ago at Berklee College of Music.
In the fall of 2022, the band played to a huge gathering in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park for the Hardly Strictly Bluegrass festival. Harrison, who has lived north of the city in Marin County for years, says the joy that coursed through a crowd estimated at 55,000 was “a high point of my life, really.”
In the background, his wife, Carol, needles him: “The high point?”
“I said a high point,” he replies with a laugh.
In Harrison’s professional life, there have been plenty of those. While studying at Harvard in the early 1970s, he met Jonathan Richman, with whom he helped form the Modern Lovers. Invited to join Talking Heads in 1976, he produced three solo albums while a member of the band. After the group’s official breakup in 1991, he became a first-call producer for dozens of alternative acts. In 1999 he cofounded the music discovery platform GarageBand.com, which later licensed its name to Apple for its music creation software.
Lately Harrison has been working again with old friend Richman. They’ve made two records together since 2018 and have been working on an upcoming reggaeton release.
Belew was already an occasional collaborator with Talking Heads when he was asked to contribute some of his otherworldly guitar sounds to “Remain in Light,” the third and final Talking Heads album co-produced by Brian Eno. He has remained friends with Harrison ever since.
Harrison, who is originally from Milwaukee, inherited his parents’ home and spent some time there during his wife’s pregnancies. (They have three grown children.) In those years, Belew was spending a lot of time working at a recording studio in Lake Geneva, Wisc.
“We’d see each other regularly there,” says Harrison. Years later, they reconnected and began entertaining the idea of paying tribute to the “Remain in Light” period.
Belew had noticed that his followers on social media often mentioned how they could watch “Live in Rome” over and over.
Harrison didn’t need much convincing: “As Adrian says, the world needs this again.”
Just as Talking Heads did in Rome 1980, the current setlist features most of the “Remain in Light” album — “Born Under Punches,” “Crosseyed and Painless,” “Once in a Lifetime” — as well as a few earlier songs, such as “Psycho Killer” and, from the band’s second album, “Stay Hungry.” They’re also playing “Thela Hun Ginjeet,” a seamless fit from Belew’s earliest work with King Crimson.
The key to the whole thing, Harrison says, is “I Zimbra,” the heavily rhythmic track from Talking Heads’ previous album, “Fear of Music” (1979). That song paired the propulsive sound of the Nigerian superstar Fela Kuti with the made-up, nonsensical words to an old poem from Dada founder Hugo Ball.
“All of us were really excited by the sound of ‘I Zimbra,’ ” Harrison recalls. “We wanted to do a record where the jumping-off point was ‘I Zimbra.’ We would always try to create a different recording environment or theme [for each album].”
“Remain in Light” teems with entrancing grooves, with layer upon layer of repetitive instrumentation.
“We used the mixing console by turning things on and off,” Harrison explains. The musicians often played unvarying figures for the duration of each song.
“It’s hard sometimes to play a little part like ‘da da da da da da da.’ It’s, like, tiring,” Harrison says with a laugh.
“But those were the kind of parts that sequencers would take over right around that period. So it was organic-feeling.”
In order to re-create so much texture onstage, Harrison was tasked with putting together the touring ensemble. The band brought in the funk legend Bernie Worrell on keyboards, percussionist Steven Scales, bassist Busta Jones, and singer Dolette MacDonald, who handled the soaring vocals that Nona Hendryx provided on the album.
“I actually put the band together in an afternoon,” Harrison says.
When he signed on for some production work with Turkuaz a few years ago, he recognized they had a collective energy that might be apt for the “Remain in Light” tour.
“To be honest, there are a lot of incredible Talking Heads tribute bands that Jerry and Adrian could have selected to be their band,” says Chris Brouwers, who plays trumpet and keyboards. But Harrison “heard us perform our music and he said, ‘You guys can bring that same energy the way we were bringing it.’ That was more important to him than finding someone who could just cover the material.”
Brouwers and several of his bandmates met at Berklee around 15 years ago. They recently split with the two cofounders of Turkuaz and formed Cool Cool Cool. When Harrison showed them the “Live in Rome” footage, they were all in.
“We were like, ‘Holy [expletive], this is fire!’” Brouwers says.
On tour, some of the shows have been in theaters. Those crowds will be seated, Brouwers says, but by the fourth song or so — usually “I Zimbra” — they’re out of their seats and dancing.
“We’re having an absolutely phenomenal time onstage,” he says. “People have been singing along to every word of every song.”
There was even one guy in New Jersey, he says, who knew every one of the nonsense words in “I Zimbra.”
JERRY HARRISON AND ADRIAN BELEW: REMAIN IN LIGHT
At House of Blues, 15 Lansdowne St. March 10 at 7 p.m. $32-$49.50. 888-693-2583, www.houseofblues.com
James Sullivan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @sullivanjames.