“David Byrne’s American Utopia” transcends staged concert. It’s not only a wholly entertaining theatrical celebration of music and movement but also the defining expression of Byrne’s canon that ponders, through his song, the puzzlement of “what are we doing here”. Appropriately, the 100 minute performance begins with Byrne’s solo rendition of “Here, which posits life contradictions: “Here is it something we call elucidation. Is it truth or merely a description?”
The performance unfolds slowly. A curtain composed of vertical, steel strands rises to the fly space creating a three-walled set, through which performers emerge. Byrne is joined by a pair of vocalists (Chris Giarmo and Tendayi Kuumba) who aren’t just back-up singers but also amazing dancers. They’re really fellow travelers with Byrne on this musical journey and soon joined by 10 musicians, all on their feet, all the time. Byrne and company are uniformly attired in sleek, silver-gray, silk two piece-suits and everyone’s barefoot; the civilized vs. the primitive. Life’s full of contradictions.
Byrne and production consultant Alex Timbers, who directed Byrne’s fabulous rock opera “Here Lies Love”, have curated with perfect balance and pacing the show’s 21numbers (which include three as encore) not just from Byrne’s last solo album “American Utopia” but also from his collaboration with Brian Eno and his Talking Heads days. Naturally, the show’s crowd-pleasers are Byrne’s most popular: “Slippery People”, “Once in a Lifetime” and., of course, “Burning Down the House”. The percussion-driven music - six of the ten musicians are percussionists – is superbly played. Sound design by Peter Keppler is superb, too, capturing all the depth of rock concert but avoiding its deafening volume. Byrne’s lyrics - even sung by ensemble – are clearly understood. Lighting design by Rob Sinclair has a similar sensibility; he preserves rock concert flash AND creates dramatic intimacy, too.
Most distinctive about “American Utopia” is choreography by Annie-B Parson, also credited with musical staging. Like “Here Lies Love”, everybody in “American Utopia” is in constant motion. Karl Mansfield, who is musical director, is harnessed with keyboard; percussionists are, too, with all sorts of instruments. They drift in and out of amorphous routines, weave around each other, create constellations; it all looks spontaneous, and, of course, it’s not. Vocalists Ms Kuumba and Mr. Giarmo are moving non- stop, too, using a versatile dance vocabulary. The effect: the most kinetic Greek chorus rock music has ever seen.
Byrne only occasionally dips into interstitial chat between song. His comments never really depart from what the songs are about, even when he alludes to current events. The title, “American Utopia”, is ironic enough. His comments, gentlemanly expressed, soothe rather than incite. His demeanor is sometimes childlike; always youthful, but sophisticated, too.
The show in encore concludes fittingly with the gospel-driven, elegiac “One Fine Day” that contemplates life’s inevitability: “I beheld… the city on the hill... I complete my tasks one by one…it is not that far… that one fine day”.
“Road to Nowhere” follows. Byrne brings us full circle from “Here” which opened the show. “Where on the road to nowhere but it’s all right baby, it’s all right.” Byrne, through his song, inspires, now as before. It’ll be alright.
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