David Byrne’s most recent album “American Utopia” received mostly positive albeit mixed reviews (given any new release by a music veteran whose most critically acclaimed records are generally agreed to be behind them).
In support of the album, however, Byrne promised “the most ambitious show I’ve done since the shows that were filmed for “Stop Making Sense”.” On Saturday evening at White River State Park in Indianapolis, he absolutely succeeded in the show’s ambition as well as the amount of pure enjoyment.
Unlike other veteran performers, Byrne has mostly escaped the nostalgia trap. If his songs from Talking Heads are played, they stand proudly with his solo material thanks to the energy and dynamics of both the band and the staging.
As it turns out, several Heads’ songs including “This Must Be the Place” and “Once in a Lifetime” were performed without any staleness that may have threatened performances of these genuine classics. Potential staleness was thwarted by Byrne’s backing musicians. All 11 of them, guitarists, keyboardists and percussionists alike, were mobile and on the same level of the stage, walking around, following and surrounding Byrne or a soloist like they were street musicians egging on each other to prove what they got.
The surrounding shimmering bead curtains that were the only stage decoration offered some great interplay with the musicians who were all in grey suits, including Byrne. As a result one could effortlessly slip in and out of focus, emerging from behind the curtain or out of the dark spaces into the footlights.
The lighting itself helped distinguish each and every song. Enormous shadows of the musicians against the back wall during “Blind,” musicians jogging around the stage during “Every Day is a Miracle” and Byrne singing with a glowing light bulb during “Bullet” (once the song was over the bulb glided gracefully off stage by itself, like magic) were not only callbacks to the “Stop Making Sense” tour, but updated to a new context.
In the filmed version of “SMS,” the focus was on each performer as an individual character. Here, the musicians were blended together to create one big, joyous noise as orchestrated by Byrne although at times even he was happy to be lost in the group.
While in his solo career, Byrne has nevertheless thrived on collaborations. Along with his Heads material were cuts from his albums with St. Vincent and Fatboy Slim, plus performances of “Lazy” and “Toe Jam” his electronic house co-writes with X-Press 2 and The Brighton Port Authority respectively. Deep cuts for Byrne fanatics only perhaps but not remotely out of place mood-wise.
The show culminated in a Janelle Monae cover of “Hell You Talmbout,” a song Byrne introduced as being as relevant as ever. The call-and-response exhortations of murdered black Americans from both the band and audience was a powerfully interactive and meaningful cover that brought Byrne’s career full circle.
Since “Take Me to the River” up to his more recent, highly original covers of Whitney Houston, Beyonce and even Biz Markie have proven that David Byrne has been shining a light on the innovative rhythms and songcraft of American r&b music and how it can be effortlessly adopted by a 67-year old white guy from Scotland. It also helps that you can dance your butt off to pretty much every one of his songs.