One of rock’s great questions, a rung or two below Are You Experienced? and maybe Which One’s Pink? but still right up there, has got to be Why A Big Suit? David Byrne asked himself that in an early-MTV-era promo for Jonathan Demme’s brilliant Talking Heads concert film Stop Making Sense, posing a query about an image – the angular frontman all Dada’d up in a gigantic gray, V-cut suit – that itself was a signature pose of the 1980s.
His answer had a bit to do with a love of geometric shapes but mostly reflected a desire to make his head seem small – a way, he suggested, of highlighting the physical, rather than the cerebral, in music. Of course the very contemplation of the matter funked things up more than a little; as, it turned out, shrunken heads are about as good at escaping attention as whispers. But of course Byrne knew that all along.
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Thirty-five years later, Byrne, his music and his contemplating – he’s still working out answers to the Big questions, suits or no – have lost none of their magnetism as his unmissable show David Byrne’s American Utopia arrives at Broadway’s Hudson Theatre, opening tonight after a year-long, 27-country tour.
Featuring songs from his chart-topping 2018 album that gives the show its title, American Utopia (in case you’re wondering) also includes a crowd-pleasing selection of hits from his Talking Heads days, flawlessly performed by Byrne and an onstage ensemble of 11. In fine voice (if he’s lost any range over the years, it’s unnoticeable beneath an ear-catching blend of Bowie croon and Dylan whine), Byrne remains a constant traveler of his own rabbit holes, and it becomes our job and pleasure to keep up.
American Utopia (no credited director but Alex Timbers listed as production consultant) finds Byrne still exploring concepts of perspective and stagecraft in determining where, exactly, he wants his audience to focus. He has eliminated all but the necessary from his stage. No cables connecting guitars to amps (in fact, no amps), no mic stands, no monitors, no props (once he ditches the rubber brain that accompanies show opener “Here”) and not a stick of furniture save a momentary small desk at which Byrne makes his introduction – I can’t imagine the flourish isn’t intended to remind of Spalding Gray, the late monologist and central figure of the downtown renaissance that gave rise to The Talking Heads – and, later, a solitary light-bulb-exposed floor lamp carried onstage but slinking off by itself once usefulness expires.
The starkness of American Utopia is Byrne’s latest method of shrinking his head, demanding our focus where he wants it: On 12 barefoot human beings, each in an identical normal-sized gray suit (Byrne, like late-career Bowie, seems perfectly comfortable sharing the spotlight with his past, tossing his body in Burning Down The House contortions, his hand at one point manipulated by dancers into the famous arm chop). Enclosed within three silver beaded walls, exposed in a flood of white light or dwarfed by tall shadows, Byrne and his marching-band-style ensemble scuttle about the set in choreographer Annie-B Parson’s constantly shifting formations of rows, groupings and chess piece moves.
In one song introduction, Byrne notes that humans like to watch other humans even more than they like to look at colorful bags of potato chips. His new show, he suggests, is intended to give the people what they want (the compelling dancer Chris Giarmo practically stages a side show, his face coated in Dylan’s Rolling Thunder white and always in motion with eye rolls, head shakes and tongue pokes).
While the Byrne of Rhode Island School of Design attends to the show’s look, Byrne of CBGB doesn’t let the music get short shrift. Pumped through an excellent sound system, much of the set list is drawn from his latest album, a terrific collection co-written, almost entirely, by Byrne and Brian Eno. Stand-outs include “Every Day Is A Miracle,” “Gasoline and Dirty Sheets” and “I Dance Like This,” with a chorus that seems to answer another of the long-standing questions around the man:
I dance like this
Because it feels so damn good
If I could dance better
Well, you know that I would
The solid offering of Talking Heads songs – “This Must Be the Place (Naive Melody),” “I Zimbra,” “Slippery People,” “Once in a Lifetime,” “Born Under Punches (The Heat Goes On),” “Blind,” “Burning Down the House,” “Road to Nowhere” – are performed faithfully to the originals while sounding as fresh as they did on first listen.
Weaving the classics with the new, American Utopia emerges as a complete, consistent work, as Byrne ties them together with purpose: No visible wires, no props to distract, the show seems to call for a dismantling of the barriers, walls and distractions that keep human beings from connection.
It’s a message, bluntly stated by Byrne more than once, that few messengers could pull off, but somehow this awkward man with the robot moves and eccentric voice does just that. Never more so than with a song that comes near the end of the show, which Byrne introduces by noting he got special permission from its author, Janelle Monáe, to cover. Monáe, Byrne tells us, loved the idea of a “white man of a certain age” singing the song – “Hell You Talmbout” – that presents a roll call of men and women of color killed by police. As Byrne and his band trade verses, relay-style, giving identity to each of the dead and beckoning the audience to say the name, American Utopia demands a reckoning on its way to the promise of its own.