David Byrne’s American Evolution

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by Mateo Rispoli

The year is 1983, a young David Byrne, at the height of his career, convulses madly on stage. He performs “Making Flippy Floppy”  with various products, and conditions flashing in sequence on large screens in the backdrop. Byrne and his band Talking Heads were making a statement; these shows, much like the cerebral music that inhabited them, proved the validity of large scale rock performances. Five-minute post-punk tracks could be multifaceted, culturally pertinent, societally critical, and their live incarnations could make hearts swell via equally honed artistic embellishment. Perhaps the heights Byrne reached with the Heads embody what makes his theater/concert hybrid American Utopia so jarringly spectacular and relevant nearly 40 years later. 

“Perhaps I have to change too,” remarked Byrne bending over center stage of Emerson’s newly renovated Colonial Theater. Those were his final words in introducing protest song “Hell You Talmbout,” originally written Janelle Monae. The 12-piece band took turns shouting the names of victims of police brutality into their audience. Mid-performance, Byrne estimated their median age is 57. Percussive, aggressive, and mournful, such a stark statement followed a tightly curated cavalcade of Talking Heads hits and songs from the show’s album namesake, separated by a variety of political and philosophical monologues. American Utopia’s main character stands 67-year-olds, now in his third act of life. The change he underwent not only as an artist and musician but a politically active American citizen parallel one another; American Utopia is a tale of evolution.

American Utopia, replete with wireless amplification technology, world-class lighting (handled by Rob Sinclair), and an open concept set design, removes all smokey overblown pomp found in the arena-rock show to create something that is simultaneously revelatory and stripped down. Surrounded by nothing but several hundred ceiling-length strings of silver beads, the band leverages their lack of obstacles in myriad ways. Whether circling Byrne andante as he stolidly grips a staff of light at center stage during “Bullet,” or slowly creeping towards him as he fixates on a glitchy blue glow stage left, singing “I used to think I should watch TV,” Annie-B Parson’s choreography and musical staging is consistently endearing and they lend further meaning to already rich lyrical content. 

The lighting acted as the main setting device throughout the show. The otherwise barren grey linoleum floor lit up and changed its face like a canvas for LED paint. Also saddled with the dual role of conductor and stage director, the ever-shifting lights acted as the linchpin of the show; an intangible essence that somehow manages to keep everyone in time. 

Byrne eschews lead guitar duties and leaves them to former Cirque Du-Soleil performer Angie Swan, who lovingly embraces the catch scratch chords of “Born Under Punches (The Heat Goes On),” and the meek two-note chord walk of “This Must Be the Place (Naive Melody).” Chris Giarmo and Tendayi Kuumba, resident back-up vocalists and hype-men, maintained an infectious chemistry and energy for the duration of the show, often galloping across the stage in a genuine euphoria rarely found at rock shows today. Bassist Bobby Wooten III poured viscous rhythms into the low end like a true proprietor of groove in glorious contrast to Karl Mansfield’s synthetic leads. Jaquelene Acevedo, Gustavo Di Dalva, Daniel Freedman, Tim Keiper, and Stéphane San Juan, as directed by renowned Brazilian percussionist Mauro Refosco, adjust and switch out their percussive textures with ease, leaving little in the way of downtime. American Utopia, as fueled by this band whose names all merit some mention, is a celebration of human connection and a refutation of isolation and stagnation; in each audience member’s social sphere as well as the greater discourse nationwide. 

“Born Under Punches (The Heat Goes On)” is introduced and built musician by musician, harkening back to Stop Making Sense. In lesser hands, it would play like a reprisal of an old stage gimmick, however, thematically pertinent, it effectuates Byrne’s entire staging philosophy: connection. “What humans like looking at more than a bicycle, sunset, or a bag of chips, is other humans,” relents the self-admitted introvert on the playbill cover. “That’s what this show is about; us and you.”

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