Sunday night I had the incredible pleasure of witnessing David Byrne’s American Utopia tour at the grand Palace Theatre in Albany, NY – and was additionally blessed with a wonderful seat near the front. I had heard so much about Byrne’s current concert presentation, but nothing prepared me for the exhilaration of witnessing it in person. Put simply, Byrne has re-invented the wheel, built a better mousetrap, or, to put it most bluntly, completely revamped the live concert. Bringing together his life-long interest in modern dance with his eye for the visual spectacular, his deep musical knowledge with his continued interest in technology, his multi-cultural integrity with his demands for excellence, and his athleticism with his fashion sense, Byrne has brought us a show that does away with amplifiers, monitors, cables and anything else that can be pinned down, replacing it with a mobile group of physically nimble musicians and dancers who enact a perfectly set choreography while playing and singing their hearts out.
To be clear, there is something to be said for watching a great rock band perform at their set positions, and there is fun to be had looking at drums and amps and mic stands, just as there is nothing wrong with pre-recorded music being brought into a live format in whatever way the audience and artist can agree upon. But with American Utopia, Byrne side-steps all of this: the musicianship is entirely live (for the doubters, Byrne takes an introduction mid-set to prove as much), but the staples of the traditional concert are otherwise eliminated entirely. The stage is but a stage; the surrounding curtains but mere curtains. To the extent that anyone could possibly dismiss such minimalism as novelty, the quality of those musicians – I can not be the only person wondering where guitarist Angie Swan has been all my life – and the physical demands put upon them throughout the performance should serve as ample evidence otherwise. Seriously, people, I’m fit, and I can play an instrument or two, but I am so far removed from the capabilities of Byrne’s chosen team that I may as well have been watching from the upper balcony for all the chance I could match them in any capacity. That Byrne can himself engage in such a demanding performance at the age of 66 puts him in Bruce category. I mean, I know the man takes his bicycle everywhere on tour but there’s something else that motivates him beyond the daily spin through a new touring environment.
Perhaps it’s his music. I note all the above without even touching on a set list that ran the depth and breadth of Byrne’s storied career. It contained most of the Talking Heads classics – “I Zimbra”(follow link for video clip), “This Must Be The Place,” “Burning Down The House” and a rendition of “Once In A Lifetime” that had me as euphoric as the day in 1981 and went out and bought the 7.” It included a number of his many collaborations, placing “Lazy,” his dancefloor hit with X-Press 2, sufficiently early in the set to get the crowd on their feet; returning with “Toe-Jam” from Fatboy Slim’s ill-fated Brighton Port Authority project; encoring with “Dancing Together” from his concept album about Imelda Marcos (co-produced with the aforementioned Fatboy Slim and featuring Sharon Jones on vocals at the time); and managing to squeeze in “I Should Watch TV” from his album with Saint Vincent that is six years old this very September 11.
And then there was the solo material. Several songs from the new album American Utopia – of which I’m especially taken by the positive “Every Day Is A Miracle,” the poignant “Bullet” and the purposefully ponderous “I Dance Like This” – demonstrated that he remains no studio or songwriting slouch. It was but a minor disappointment that there was so little room for a deeper rummage through his extensive individual back catalogue, other than a rousing and well-received “Like Humans Do.”
An additional tip of the hat is merited the audience which recognized that it was witnessing something unique and unprecedented and reacted with all due applause and appreciation – and was largely on its feet throughout. This was a crowd that appeared to have grown up on Talking Heads and it was encouraging to see and hear that they have not lost their appreciation for original art with impending old age. (Nor, it should be said, their ability and desire to dance. Much is said about white people dancing, and I’m first to hide my head in embarrassment at times, but this was an audience with rhythm, likely at least partially instilled in them by Byrne’s output in the first place.)
To that note, Byrne’s exhortations that young people should get out and vote may not have fallen so much on deaf ears as on those of empty-nesters – but his point remains well-taken and the register-to-vote stands demonstrated his desire to act rather than merely talk. Additionally, his choice of finale – an updated cover of Janelle Monae’s “Hell You Talmabout” (follow this link for video clip), which implores us to say (or shout) the names of those victims of American police executions, to a rhythm reminiscent of Beyonce’s “Run The World” – confirmed that for Byrne, as for just about all of us, American Utopia remains a concept, not a reality. His choice also maintained the current trend of American artists closing their set with a poignant political cover version.
In conclusion, this was easily the concert of the year. But it was more than that. To the extent one can list them, I’d put it in my top ten of all time – and believe me, I’ve seen some concerts over the years. It gave me hope, faith and clarity – and it renewed my frequently wavering optimism about the future of this potentially great nation.