Once In a Lifetime

david byrne humanizes the machinery of modern performance—american utopia tour @ auditorium theater, 1 june 2018.

David Byrne’s American Utopia touring show is sparse as can be, yet also full of action, energy, and history. Byrne has conceptualized and created a stage set with no amps, no backline, no microphone stands, no risers, no microphones, or any other gear. A vertical silver-chain curtain surrounds the stage on three sides, creating a kind of minimalist, white box gallery space. The lights are coordinated by sensors, and designed to distinguish each song from the other. Choreography by Annie-B. Parson finds the musicians performing little symbolic gestural sequences here and there while falling into and out of formations as if they were a kind of avant-garde marching band.

David Byrne and band, American Utopia tour, 2018.

The musicians are mobile, wireless, and free to move, and yet the performance is highly structured, disciplined, and crisp. It’s enormously complex in service of simplicity, concealing the mechanisms, technology, and complexity of a big-time show to deliver a sense of pristine ease and intimacy. It’s cold in its way, but as with much of Byrne’s aesthetic, the coldness on the surface gives way to a deeply humane warmth within it.

There’s nothing more to the staging than the present musical moment—all is geared (or better said the gears are hidden) to emphasize that immediacy. And yet as Byrne plays greatest hits from the Talking Heads as well as more recent solo material (including some wonderful new songs from his album American Utopia), the stage is flooded with history. Within the show are allusions to iconic Talking Heads video, Jonathan Demme’s Stop Making Sense documentary film, and, of course, the current tumultuous larger political context of our own time.

David Byrne with brain, American Utopia tour, 2018.

Bryne appears from the dark, center stage, to start the show. As the silver-chain curtain raises up, he sits at a desk with a plastic-model brain before him. He holds it up and points to its lobes as he sings the song “Here,” a song whose lyrics are worth quoting in full since they frame the rest of the performance that follows:

Here is a region of abundant details
Here is a region that is seldom used
Here is a region that continues living
Even when the other sections are removed

Put your hand out of your pocket
Wipe the sweat off of your brow
Now it feels like a bad connection
No more information now

As it passes through your neurons
Like a whisper in the dark
Raise your eyes to one who loves you
It is safe right where you are

Here is an area of great confusion
Here is a section that’s extremely precise
And here is an area that needs attention
Here is a connection with the opposite side

Here is many sounds for your brain to comprehend
Here the sound, it’s organized into things that make some sense
Here there is something we call hallucination
Is it the truth or merely a description?

Byrne’s gray hair is stylishly cut. He wears a slim, tailored suit. He is barefoot. Two backup singers join him, also wearing the same suits, also barefoot. Soon the rest of the band is onstage, instruments slung from necks or slung around shoulders, all in matching suits, all barefoot. Even the trap drum set has been split up among six percussionists.

The audience in Chicago responded most viscerally to the classic Talking Heads’ songs, but what was most striking sonically was Byrne’s voice, which remains as powerful, strong, and distinct as ever, a signature instrument that centers and grounds the sparseness of the show in something familiar yet as transporting as ever. Same as it ever was, yet adapting to the new and strange waters of the present. There’s the sound of 1970s New Wave New York in that voice, the echoes and traces of another time of crisis. There is also a model for how to pursue art in the postmodern world with a mix of sardonic humor and sincere commitment. There is Byrne’s goofiness and eloquence brought together for life.

Here was a show that stayed in the moment, laser focused, and yet it also linked forty years of songs to the now, with lyrics about being a government man (“Born Under Punches”), gun violence (“Bullet”), troubled souls (“Slippery People”), wry observation (“Like Humans Do”), or the line between celebrity and intimacy (“Everybody’s Coming To My House”), swirling about in a mix as dense with references to the past and the larger world as the performance was sleek and clean and enclosed within its steel curtain. The minimalism released a kind of maximalism.

For their second and final encore, Byrne and band performed a powerful, pounding, martial version of Janelle Monáe’s I-can’t-breathe protest, #blacklivesmatter anthem about police brutality “Hell You Talmbout.” Naming those killed by the police, almost always under questionable if not clearly unjust circumstances, the musicians brought to a point the relevance of the empty stage and the capacity for mobility upon it: there were no distractions to be had, only this important moment of collective reckoning.

One might think of the American Utopia show as The Wizard of Oz in reverse: you might have the urge to peer behind the curtain, to see a man pretending to be the mighty Oz; except in this show he was right there in front of you, downstage, in the magnificent community and company of his band and audience. Instead of a little man hiding backstage, pulling the levers, projecting his powers in fantastical enlargement (maybe, say, in a giant suit), all the machinery now is concealed behind the mesh of silver chain. Oz is pushed to the margins and the man steps forth, whirling in and out among the other musicians, in solidarity, bowing to the fierce guitar solo of the excellent Angie Swan at the end of “The Great Curve,” and chanting in unison on “Hell You Talmbout.” The technology is submerged to create space for the human element—and it does so with a beautiful, crystalline, fiercely realized precision.

We need that grace these days, that capacity for mobility, that breathing room, that space to take a stand, to be “Here” in the present moment. To be sure, the show does not escape the chains of its elite location—at a fancy theater with expensive tickets, listened to mostly by an older, white audience. But out of the rigorous sparseness of the American Utopia performance, which pushes the machinations to the wings, other forces were mobilized, moved to the fore, there for the making rather than the taking: a compelling humanity bursting forth from an empty space.

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