When David Byrne’s American Utopia tour arrived in Britain in the summer of 2018, the reactions of those lucky enough to see it ranged from dumbstruck to bemused. Dumbstruck because, in tearing up the rule book, Byrne had arrived at a way of presenting live music that was electrifying and revolutionary. Bemused because so many of us were left asking the same question: why don’t more artists move beyond the traditional ways of staging gigs?
Barefoot and in identical gray suits, their instruments — including keyboards and drums — hanging from harnesses around their necks and backs, the former Talking Heads frontman and 11 musicians from across the globe roamed across a bare stage draped in glittering metal curtains. Tightly choreographed by Annie-B Parson, they ran through a set list drawn from Talking Heads and Byrne’s solo career and collaborations. Blind, Burning Down the House, Once in a Lifetime, Glass, Concrete & Stone, Lazy, I Zimbra, Everybody’s Coming to My House: to witness these songs in such an expectation-confounding setting was to be led into a world of unlimited possibility. So, back to that question: why don’t more people do this?
“I can’t disagree,” says Byrne via Zoom from his home in New York. “It seems to me that a lot of hip-hop artists have taken more risks and done more adventurous things as far as their stagings and how they approach live performance are concerned. Of course they don’t have a band; they’re not restricted by ‘Where do we put the musicians?’ We’ve seen the images of shows with Kanye West on a floating platform — incredibly innovative. But as someone who makes live shows, I wonder, once you’re stuck on a floating platform, what do you do about 20 minutes into the show? Where do you go?”
Byrne’s interest in new approaches had been sparked by his 2012-13 tour with Annie Clark, aka St Vincent, on which they performed with multiple brass players in a highly drilled, stylized staging. “I was beginning to play with the idea of having the performers be mobile. Then this one did that all the way through, completely clearing the stage. That final step was a huge leap — now the whole stage was ours and we could do whatever we want there.”
“We’ve seen the images of shows with Kanye West on a floating platform — incredibly innovative.”
Nothing was straightforward, as Byrne soon discovered. “Being a somewhat practical person, I asked my booking agent, ‘Tell me how much I stand to make? What sort of venues am I going to be playing? Because I need to know how many players I’m going to be able to afford.’ The music director of the drum department is going to say it’s going to take six people to play this stuff — so I’m paying six people instead of one. And there are hotel rooms, plane fares, all that kind of stuff.”
Technology was another potential problem. “There were a lot of issues around radio frequencies, because we had double, triple the amount of them because everybody had to be wireless. There was an ambition to do it, but there were a number of hurdles to get over. And any one of them could have stumped the whole thing.”
The tour arrived on Broadway for a four-month run last October, in a tweaked, semi-dramatized incarnation. But before it got there the movie director Spike Lee attended previews at Byrne’s suggestion and was soon on board to film the production. “I asked Spike, ‘Is there anything you would seek to change in this show? Should we cut a song? You can say that to me.’ And he said, ‘No, you’ve been doing this for quite a while, I think it’s working really well.’ I really think he felt it just needed to be honored and captured, and somehow transferred to another medium.”
In the Broadway version and Lee’s film the thematic and conceptual threads that loosely bound the gigs together become much more apparent. The film opens with Byrne holding a plastic model of a human brain and discussing theories about neural connections. “Does this mean babies are smarter than us,” he ponders, “and we get stupider as we grow older? Where do those lost connections go?”
Connection is crucial here, reinforced by Byrne’s intersong commentary. As the set unfolds, his notional character goes on a journey toward, he says, “social and civic engagement. You sense this person’s awareness is going beyond the personal. So it’s not just me telling stories: you know, ‘Then I wrote this song, then that one.’ It’s more about a psychological and social evolution, as opposed to a biography of a songwriter.”
“Does this mean babies are smarter than us, and we get stupider as we grow older? Where do those lost connections go?”
Byrne has form here, you may recall. Jonathan Demme’s 1984 film Stop Making Sense was similarly groundbreaking and remains, giant suit and all, one of the key concert films in pop history. Lee has now made another. His insertion, during a cover of Janelle Monáe’s Hell You Talmbout, of family members holding up photographs of loved ones killed by police officers is typical of him, and a shattering moment. And with cameras hovering above the stage and breathing down performers’ necks, his film conveys just how visceral the concerts were. Liberating too — not just for the audience, but for Byrne and his band as well.
That feeling of shock and wonder never went away, the singer says. “I would turn around and it was always a surprise. ‘Look what’s going on back there. Look at all that space.’ There’d be moments when I knew there was no one behind me and nothing to impede my motion. I’d never had that feeling on stage before.”
Parson’s choreography plays a key role, at times almost Pina Bausch-like in its violent directional shifts and juxtapositions. Yes, Byrne agrees, though he adds with a dry chuckle: “We’re not knocking each other over or dragging one another around by the hair. But there’s a similarity, I think, in that they both work with what I call ‘pedestrian movement’. Every once in a while something new appears in dance’s vocabulary, but most of it is incredibly ordinary, though put in an unexpected place.”
“Put in an unexpected place” pretty much sums up American Utopia. Byrne couldn’t, he says, have taken a traditional tour on the road. “Me just standing in front of even an incredible band — on that scale, I couldn’t see me doing it. I could if it was in clubs, where it’s intimate enough that the audience sees the interaction between the players. But you can’t scale that up. People try to, with screens, but it doesn’t work.”
The Byrne I talk to is the version cemented by his 43-year career of restless inquiry and constant innovation. In his erstwhile bandmate Chris Frantz’s recent memoir Remain in Love: Talking Heads, Tom Tom Club, Tina, a gnarlier and knottier version is presented. The person Frantz describes was a royalty-hogging, oxygen-thieving control freak. Has Byrne read the book?
“Which book?” he asks, as his publicists, lurking on the call, suddenly rematerialize. “Oh, that book. Seriously, yes, I can’t read it because then everybody will ask, ‘What did you think about this?’ My excuse has to be that I haven’t read it.” With the verbal equivalent of his trademark dance style, the 68-year-old sidesteps confrontation. He saves that for his art. Works for me.
Dan Cairns is a music critic for The Times of London
David Byrne’s American Utopia is available on digital download beginning on December 14 and on DVD beginning on January 11