David Byrne Is Disrupting Dystopia David Byrne's Playful, Powerful "American Utopia" Tour
QUEENS, NEW YORK- A gridwork of fold-out chairs lined the lawn of Forest Hills Stadium, but if the venue was expecting a staid, seated crowd, they missed the memo on American Utopia. Once the shimmering, eerie opening of “Here” drifted out across the field, the audience was on its feet, eyes glued to the stage. The curtain rose to reveal David Byrne seated at a small table, pondering the plastic human brain held in his hand — Hamlet meets Dr. House. He soon leapt out of his chair, delivering a lesson in neurobiology: Here is a region of abundant detail, here is a region that is seldom used. Here is a section that continues living, even when the other sections are removed. Chris Giarmo and Tendayi Kuumba — each, like Byrne, clad in a dapper Kenzo suit — stepped out from behind a curtain of silvery beads, weaving in their vocals as Byrne paced the stage.
In “Here,” the scientific is the starting point for a metaphysical meditation — what is perception and what is reality? It’s a cerebral, playful invitation to interrogate how we make sense of what we experience. And those who have seen this ambitious, mind-warping production will attest that it’s an experience that disrupts, in the most delicious of ways, the notion of a concert. Seldom has the unsettling been so enticing, and the closing lines of the song (a collaboration with electronic artist Daniel Lopatin, aka Oneohtrix Point Never) were an amuse-bouche for the evening: Here, too many sounds for your brain to comprehend … here, the sound gets organized into things that make some sense. Here is something we call elucidation … Is it the truth? Or merely a description?
Mr. Byrne’s creations extend beyond the beloved Talking Heads. The Scotland-born, Maryland-raised artist has authored books about music and cities as seen from the seat of his bicycle. He’s written a disco-rock musical with Fatboy Slim based on Imelda Marcos, the infamous former first lady of the Philippines. (When introducing “Dancing Together” on Saturday night — Sharon Jones sang on the recorded track — Mr. Byrne remarked on Ferdinand Marcos’s authoritarian rule, adding a sly dig at Paul Manafort, which evoked a chorus of companionable boos from the audience.) Mr. Byrne has also diagrammed aspects of the human experience — rhizomatic depictions of everything from romantic relationships to the flow of information — in a collection of illustrations evocative of Deleuze and Guatarri’s A Thousand Plateaus. His tour journal grapples with the concept of museums as national branding and sites of cultural contestation. In short, Mr. Byrne is as much a musician as he is an alchemist of sight, sound, politics, and meaning — a free-wheeling, polymath brilliance that makes comical the fact that he was asked to leave his middle school’s choir because he was too withdrawn and too off-key.
For this tour in support of American Utopia, an eleven-piece band joins Mr. Byrne on a minimalist stage. Three expanses of metallic curtains form a box stage. There are no drum kits, microphone stands, stacks of amps, or rows of monitors. Each musician’s instrument — mostly percussion, some guitars — is worn on a lightweight harness, which frees the band members to traverse the stage, tracing steps both choreographed and organic, at times forming geometric patterns neatly illuminated by stage lights, and at other times, leaping and pirouetting barefoot across the stage. “Once In a Lifetime” — the opening melody of which was just audible over the ecstatic cheering of the crowd — saw Mr. Byrne staggering across the stage, eyes wide, expression frantic, falling backwards and propped back up by his bandmates, playing out the disorientation of waking from a cookie-cutter Pleasantville life.
The set included other Talking Heads classics, including “Burning Down the House” and “This Must Be the Place (Naive Melody).” The songs both old and new demonstrate Mr. Byrne’s unnerving ability to tap into collective anxieties born of consumer capitalism, technological paradigm shifts, and social unrest. Whether in “I Should Watch TV,” which Byrne recorded with St. Vincent, or “Bullet,” from his new album, which turns a matter-of-fact gaze on the path of a projectile — the bullet went into him, his skin did part in two … skin that women had touched, the bullet passed on through — these songs and lyrics are paradoxically sharp and impressionistic, surreal and hyper-real, disembodied and visceral, alien and inviting.
The harmonies are ecstatic, the grooves are funky (bassist Bobby Wooten shines in songs like “I Zimbra” and “Born Under Punches”), and the polyrhythmic textures provided by drummers/percussionists Mauro Refosco, Tim Keiper, Aaron Johnston, Gustavo Di Dalva, Davi Vieira, and Daniel Freedman, set moods that are alternately playful and ominous. Guitarist Angie Swan and keyboardist Karl Mansfield were magic — despite not having pedal boards or a panoply of keys and controllers, the band captured the dense layers of squelchy blips and staccato guitars of “Born Under Punches,” and the loop central to “Once In A Lifetime.”
If all of this boggles your mind, you’re not alone — Mr. Byrne remarked during the show that reporters had been calling his publicist, not believing that this richly-textured music was being played live without use of samples or tracks. (To demonstrate, he built a song from the ground up, musician by musician joining the sonic parade.)
Saturday night had moments of delightful absurdist comedy, including with the song “Every Day Is a Miracle,” which situates us in alternate subjectivities, exploring a chicken’s idea of heaven and the feeling of being a tongue. There were many poignant moments as well. In a pointed reminder of the responsibility of citizenship, Mr. Byrne urged folks to vote, giving a shout-out to HeadCount for making it easy to register at concerts. “Voting is a right we have,” he said, adding, “it’s one of the rights we still have — and it’s not to be taken lightly.”
In a powerful coda to the evening, the band brought out red drums for a cover of Janelle Monáe’s protest song, “Hell You Talmbout.” The song implores us to remember the names of black victims of police violence — Trayvon Martin, Walter Scott, Aiyana Jones, Eric Garner, Michael Brown, Amadou Diallo, and more — the refrain urging us to “say his name, say his name.”
The song was prefaced with an explanation that Ms. Monáe had given the band her blessing to update the lyrics. This acknowledgment of the continued relevance of the list of names — and what’s more, the need to continually add to the list — is a devastating one. And the fact that Mr. Byrne and his band use their platform, this literal center stage, to say these names night after night, is a powerful message in itself. The systemic inequalities that create injustice also render those wrongs invisible, silencing the voices of the disenfranchised. Mr. Byrne chooses to place social injustice in the spotlight. Night after night, city after city, he and his bandmates say these names (on Saturday, Tune-Yards’ Merrill Garbus joined for the final song). They say these names, and we hear these names.
We heard these names while standing in the stadium in which Arthur Ashe became the first black man to win a Grand Slam tournament, on a week following the controversial treatment of Serena Williams at the U.S. Open, in a month where Colin Kaepernick‘s advertisement for Nike re-invigorated the debate over how and where and what we protest.
Mr. Byrne’s work has always explored all that is messy and mellifluous about the human condition, and American Utopia is no exception. The album conveys a hopefulness, an un-ironic conviction that the work of building a more perfect union is never over, and despite the difficulties of the struggle, the fight is not a fruitless one. In a nation that’s lost its way, as we scroll through a stream of unhinged tweets from on high and click on yet another article about the systematic rollback of [take your pick: voting rights/ immigrants’ rights/ LGBTQ rights/ reproductive rights/ environmental protections/ etc. — it’s mad libs for Orwellian times] — in all this horror, there is still so much resilience to be found through human connection. For me, that’s what this concert was about.
The course of history appears inevitable only in hindsight. History is made every day, by everyday people, and every interaction is a chance to connect, to communicate, to empathize, to learn. I know I wasn’t the only one in Forest Hills Stadium that night who felt deeply moved and wonderfully unsettled by the shared experience.
The venue’s 10pm curfew did not stop the crowd from continuing to chant “one more song” after the second encore. And as the lights came on and the audience filed toward the exits, the fans in section 301 spontaneously broke into a rendition of “Psycho Killer.” It was as joyful as it was out-of-key (that is, very much so), these voices joining up and spilling out into the streets of the city.
Perhaps part of Mr. Byrne’s message is that what is real is more than the components of our individual experiences. What is human is you, me, us — nomads and residents of a world we build out of utopian dreams, in defiance of dystopian nightmares.