David Byrne Dazzles @ The Oakdale, Wallingford, CT

David Byrne has accomplished just about all one can accomplish in a lifetime.  The 66 year old Academy Award winner, Golden Globe winner, Rock & Roll Hall of Fame inductee and of course founder of the renown new wave band Talking Heads is still set on making innovative genre blurring inspiring art through his love of music, art, theater, dance, and live performance.  Byrne’s current musical iteration falls under the conceptual umbrella of what he’s titled this 2018 tour and album of the same name, American Utopia. The title alone will alert most fans of Byrne that he’s playing with the current state of affairs politically, culturally, and perhaps even musically.  Needless to say, those in the audience are sure to laugh, dance, and brim with ebullient excitement that even for just a moment dislocates oneself from the cesspit of american politics and public discourse.  While this is a welcome escape, it is temporary, and is fractured with pointed intent as Byrne is teaming up with HeadCount.org who describe themselves as “a non-partisan organization that works with musicians to promote participation in democracy.”  Having been on tour since March 3rd and continuing until November 25th the sexagenarian has the stamina of an olympic athlete. However the secret to his success as it turns out isn’t the luxury travel from city to city but rather his fold up bicycle that rides with him.  On Saturday morning as the tour bus drove away departing New Haven for Wallingford, the location of the venue, Byrne and several of his bandmates weren’t on board. Instead, the platinum haired leader of the pack took to the city streets and suburban bike paths aboard his fold up bicycle as they set out on the 20 mile journey to the Oakdale where they would rehearse and perform later that afternoon and evening.  A longtime advocate of cycling and cycler’s rights, Byrne certainly practices what he preaches.

Once off two wheels and back on two feet, Byrne and company gave way to opener and Connecticut native Merrill Garbus, a.k.a. tUnE-yArDs.  It’s never an easy task opening for well known acts, it’s a whole other task to open for someone with the credentials Byrne has accrued but Garbus and company took it all in stride and got the crowd warmed up with their brand of woldbeat art-pop that’s brought them a bit of indie fame of their own.  They hit the highlights playing catchy hooks like “Heart Attack,” “Water Fountain,” “Look At Your Hands,” “Coast to Coast,” “Gangsta,” and “ABC 123.” All in all it was a big show for the small state native and as she herself put it “an honor to be opening for the great David Byrne.”

As is customary with Byrne, city to city, recordings of chirping birds filled the venue between sets since no music is played to pacify the masses.  After the songbirds subsided and the house lights dimmed up rose a single spotlight illuminating Byrne seated at a table holding an oblong pink object the size of a football.  As the fill lights revealed the object, a lifesize model of a human brain, it became clear what he was holding and what was in fact the subject of the opening number “Here”. Pointing to parts of the brain while seated and eventually rising from the table and walking toward the crowd Byrne sang out, now accompanied by two more vocalists:

Here is many sounds

For your brain to comprehend

Here the sound is organised

Into things that make some sense

The crowd roared in applause at what they had just witnessed as the song came to a close setting the tone for what was to be a truly special evening.  The stage was sparse and housed nothing but the performers and their instruments, many of them affixed to harnesses similar to what one might see used in a marching band.  No amps, no mic stands, no cables, nothing typically associated with a rock show. The sides and rear of the stage were walled off using hundreds of LED strand lights all controlled by a lighting designer, who as in a theater production, played an integral role in the performance.  The stand lighting allowed performers to pass on and off stage easily and at times projecting only body parts or instruments through the curtain of lights. Although Byrne was at first a solo performer by the end of the first song he had been joined on stage by several other performers, two vocalists and several instrumentalists all of whom were adorned in very subdued grey men’s suits with grey button up shirts under their jackets.  In stark contrast many of the performers were barefoot while others wore nondescript simple slip on shoes. Their movements were constant and flowing, not dance per se, but certainly choreographed movements that occasionally took the form of dance. Byrne himself moved with the energy and grace of a man well younger than his actual age and fit right in among his much younger cast of performers. There was a moment early in the performance when he walked backward into the chair he had recently vacated and tripped up a bit.  In a quintessential Byrne manner he smiled widely in recognition of his fumble to the audience and proceeded on without missing a beat. Impressively that was the only hiccup that I spotted during what was a rather elaborate 90 minute production. It should be noted that the sound design was equally impressive. There were moments during the evening that found all 12 performers equipped with instruments ranging from traditional instruments (guitar, bass, drums, keyboard) to african drums, percussion, and berimbaus, which can often be found in Brazilian Tropicalia music, a notable influence in Byrne’s musical progression.

A fun moment for me and what felt like for the collective audience was when the anticipated eventually happened; the playing of the Talking Heads’ classic “Burning Down the House”.  An obvious classic that was perhaps a foregone conclusion and yet exceeded expectations. With the opening acoustic loop and eerie reverbed keyboard licks, the extended opening whipped the crowd into a frenzy once the notes were identified as that of the classic jam.  When the drum fill dropped followed by Byrne’s vocals “Watch out, you might get what you’re after” the Earth shifted ever so slightly under the undulating, in unison, crowd pogoing from the drop to the fade. To ensure insanity, the LED strand lights rose and fell with the tune in magnitude of reds and mimicked the madness of the drummers who drove the song through the hearts of the audience.

Encore number one saw Byrne’s collaboration with Fatboy Slim play out in the form of the beat heavy “Dancing Together” followed by the Talking Heads classic “The Great Curve“ from the 1980 album Remain in Light”  After one final and brief departure from the stage, Byrne and the eleven other performers returned for a final farewell in the form of the 2015 protest song by Janelle Monáe entitled “Hell You Talmbout”. The powerful refrain of:

Eric Garner, say his name

Eric Garner, say his name

Eric Garner, say his name

Eric Garner, won’t you say his name?

Trayvon Martin, say his name

Trayvon Martin, say his name

Trayvon Martin, say his name

Trayvon Martin, won’t you say his name?

Sean Bell, say his name

Sean Bell, say his name

Sean Bell, say his name

Sean Bell, won’t you say his name?

dislocated us, the audience, from the bubble of privilege we had all occupied during the last 90 minutes, and was a sobering reminder of the reality of daily life for people of color in 2018.  A stark and sombre reminder that voting is a powerful tool, particularly for the disenfranchised and the other 99%. While the night was not explicitly about politics it was about an American Utopia, and what it looked like in the minds of the participants.

David Byrne will continue touring through November and should not be missed if he stops in your town.  Stop making sense and go out and catch this American legend.

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Setlist:

  1. Here
  2. Lazy
  3. I Zimbra (Talking Heads song)
  4. Slippery People (Talking Heads song)
  5. Dog’s Mind
  6. I Should Watch TV (David Byrne & St. Vincent cover)
  7. Everybody’s Coming to My House
  8. This Must Be the Place (Naive Melody)(Talking Heads song)
  9. Once in a Lifetime (Talking Heads song)
  10. Doing the Right Thing
  11. Toe Jam (Brighton Port Authority cover)
  12. Born Under Punches (The Heat Goes On)(Talking Heads song)
  13. I Dance Like This
  14. Bullet
  15. Every Day Is a Miracle
  16. Like Humans Do
  17. Blind (Talking Heads song)
  18. Burning Down the House (Talking Heads song)

Encore:

  1. Dancing Together
  2. The Great Curve (Talking Heads song)

Encore 2:

  1. Hell You Talmbout (Janelle Monáe cover)
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