Review and photo by Seth Rogovoy
(KINGSTON, N.Y., March 10, 2018) – Unlike most of his rock ‘n’ roll peers in their mid-60s or older, David Byrne showed no signs of waning creativity or imagination in his terrific, sold-out concert at Ulster Performing Arts Center (UPAC) on Saturday night.
Nor is Byrne coasting on past achievements. One day earlier saw the release of his brand-new album, “American Utopia,” from which he drew a half-dozen numbers for the approximately two-dozen number setlist, a carefully curated mix of well-known and lesser-known songs from his solo career plus a selection of tunes from his erstwhile punk-art outfit, Talking Heads, or, more specifically, from what I like to call Talking Heads 2.0, the period marked by the deep funk grooves and African-derived polyrhythms first introduced on the Brian Eno-produced “Fear of Music” that received their full elaboration on follow-up albums including “Remain in Light” and “Speaking in Tongues.”
The hot-off-the-press numbers performed by Byrne and his youthful, 12-piece ensemble – including a six-piece percussion corps, two singer-dancers, and a sparse guitar-bass-keyboard trio providing the meat of the band – meshed perfectly with the rest of the material both musically, lyrically, and moodwise. This is part due to what has now become apparent – the thematic and musical timelessness of Byrne’s Talking Heads 2.0 material – as well as more conscious effort to tweak all the material to suit the particular rhythm-heavy approach to this tour band as well as to contextualize old and new material alike in a somewhat dystopic, monochromatic (if not downright dark) visual and emotional aesthetic perfectly suited to illuminate the overarching, eternal concerns of Byrne’s work: alienation from America’s mass culture, politics, and society. It’s not at all surprising that the new album title is meant either partially or wholly ironically.
David Byrne has never been the kind of artist who just decides to go on tour, hires a conventional band, and plays a selection of hits and misses. For Byrne, each tour is the opportunity for reinventing every aspect of his art – in this manner, and in his wide-lens approach to the theatricality of the rock concert format, he resembles no one more than David Bowie. Byrne seemingly revels at the opportunity offered by each new outing, and over the years this has variously meant performing solo with a boombox and a DJ (before anyone even knew what a DJ was); with a white-suited Latin big band; with a rock band plus string quartet; and various other iterations that have allowed Byrne to explore new and different glosses on his material.
This time out, Byrne has chosen a remarkable blend of monochromatic, white-light minimalism (and Minimalism); a marching band style no doubt stemming from his recent exploration of Color Guard culture in his “Contemporary Color” events and documentary film; and performance art. Byrne has always been something of a cracked actor with a peculiar narrative voice, but this time out he ups the ante with most numbers being or including theatrical vignettes, using elements including props, staging, lighting, costume – the entire ensemble wore matching, elegant grey suits and dress shirts — but especially dance.
To some extent, this concert is a work of dance-theater; Byrne worked with choreographer Annie-B Parson, the founder of Big Dance Theater, on the production, which was no simple task. Unlike a conventional rock concert, there are no fixed points on the stage at all. The entire event takes place in a black-box set defined by a curtain of very fine vertical chains, through which musicians make entrances and exits, and inside of which each song is played out with free-moving singers, dancers, and instrumentalists. There’s no drum kit onstage, no fixed perch for the keyboardist, no amplifiers, and no microphones from which backup vocalists are 20 feet from stardom. The band and performers are constantly on the move, everything is wireless, the musicians hear everything via in-ear monitors (what an engineering nightmare that must be!), and each number requires different formations, circles, staging, and points of focus. Byrne himself is not even always the center of attention – on occasion he cedes that to singer-dancers or musicians, himself singing or playing guitar off to the side or in the rear. It sounds like a recipe for disaster, all the constant moving and to- and fro-ing, but in execution it’s a beautiful thing to behold, and one imagines serious credit devolves to Parson, as well as to Byrne for casting singers and musicians capable of pulling off the additional skills of precision movement and dancing.
One band member in particular was a standout, and at Saturday night’s show, she had the additional spotlight (and burden, perhaps) of being the hometown hero. Byrne drafted the Hudson Valley’s own masterful singer-songwriter-performer Simi Stone for the tour, and Stone more than rises to the occasion, with her precision vocals matching her phenomenal, at times acrobatic, dance moves (it helps that Stone had some serious dance training in her past). It was great fun to see her talents showcased to such a great extent, alone, with other members of the corps, and in tandem with Byrne. One only hopes that this finally gives Stone the leg up in her own career she so dearly deserves, but in the meantime, her talents in the service of Byrne’s show are a brilliant display of genius collaboration. And the crowd let both her and Byrne know that!
Credit also devolves to the almost 66-year-old Byrne for surrounding himself with an ensemble whose average age could well be less than half his own. Think about it – none of these performers actually grew up listening to Talking Heads. They probably know the music via their parents! The injection of youthful energy and exuberance added a freshness to the music and the overall proceedings, undoubtedly juicing Byrne himself – who has given himself a challenging regimen on what is scheduled to be a brutal six-month world tour that one imagines might well be extended even beyond what has already been announced.
Byrne was a generous and engaging frontman, equal to the challenge of Parson’s choreography, fit of voice, showing himself to be a fleet guitarist (even tackling the challenging fingerpicking intro to “Burning Down the House” on acoustic guitar) and a steady MC through his own world of absurd and pointed observations: “a cockroach would eat the Mona Lisa; the Pope don’t mean shit to a dog.”
What’s scariest, however, is how resonant Byrne’s material and overall worldview is, both his old material and his newest (which was written mostly before Donald Trump goose-stepped his way into the White House). A lot of the material and set-pieces would have fit right into an avant-garde staging of “1984.” In introducing a number from his rock-theater piece, “Here Lies Love,” inspired by Imelda Marcos, one-time wife of Filipino dictator Ferdinand Marcos, he noted that Paul Manafort was deeply involved with keeping the latter in power.
And without giving anything away, after two encores, Byrne brought down the curtain on a remarkably dark note, with the creative assistance of Janelle Monae. I’ll say no more, other than that David Byrne’s 2018 “American Utopia” tour will go down in history as one of the funkiest, smartest, most provocative rock shows of all time.
N.B. – David Byrne’s concert sold out in advance to those holding membership at the Bardavon – the parent organization of UPAC, Mid-Hudson Civic Center, and Hutton Brickyards. In this case, membership did indeed have its privileges.