David Byrne's American Utopia
Hudson Theatre, NY
According to David Byrne during the encore we are all on a "road to nowhere" even if that message is delivered from the stage of the fabulously intimate and historic Hudson Theatre on West 44th Street in Times Square. This is not a musical, it is a full blown pop concert. It started as a tour for his 2018 solo album American Utopia. Many of the same musicians who graced the stage of that tour have migrated and morphed his vision onto a Broadway stage. And while it may be performed with grand theatrical gestures and choreographed movements, it is still an extraordinary theatrical performance, albeit one with intricate movements and 12 wireless musicians weaving in and out and around each other with each song. While there are songs from that aforementioned album there are plenty of crowd-pleasing songs from Talking Heads and his solo work, too. Those songs were met by clapping and yelling and standing ovations after each number -- "Slippery People," "Once In A Lifetime," "Burning Down The House," "This Must Be The Place," to name but a few.
Although this run is winding down and finally ending on February 16th, it was truly a "once in a lifetime" musical experience. Clearly it was as exciting and exhilarating as my first live encounter with Mr. Byrne's Talking Heads 40 years ago -- in full bloom and rock majesty -- played at John Carroll University in Cleveland, Oct. 31st (Halloween) 1980. (The Psychedelic Furs opened for them!) Mr. Byrne has carefully curated a celebration of his catalog while framing his favorite music with his new musical comrades.
I have always been drawn to Mr. Byrne's existentially poetic and cerebral music from the moment I head the Talking Heads' debut album 77. They were always a cut above the rest of their contemporary rock peers. Always with one foot into the future. So one should not be surprised at how forward thinking this thoughtful and artistic statement might be presented on the Great White Way.
Some of the "tai chi" soft and flowing movements have been seen on stage before both in filmmaker Jonathan Demme's iconic Stop Making Sense rock concert doc and Byrne's dance/music collaboration with choreographer/dancer Twyla Tharp for The Catherine Wheel. Regardless, the movement during the various songs was never indulgent nor redundant unless purposely redundant to make a point. With his crack 11- piece band providing all the live/wireless instrumentation, this is music performed without incident in the age of bluetooth technology. In fact, Mr. Byrne even made a point of their "music" when he introduced every cast member and their place of origin before they shared their instrument's sound with the audience. It was a very clever sequence that put to rest that they were performing to tracks!
There was also a wonderful story about the song "Everybody's Coming to My House" that was recorded by a group of teenagers from Detroit -- Detroit School of Arts featuring the Vocal Jazz Ensemble -- who completely remade the song into a more positive and uplifting version of his brooding exploration of loneliness. The version above is so far removed from his staging that both need to be seen to fully appreciate their converse relationship.
If Byrne continues to tour this pop art masterpiece, do not miss it. He will not stop making sense.