It’s hard to set expectations much higher than David Byrne did in announcing his American Utopia Tour, promising his most ambitious stage show since Talking Heads’ Stop Making Sense performances. Immortalized in the classic 1984 concert film, the Stop Making Sense shows reached the pinnacle of what artfully executed rock concerts can achieve, all the more impressive because they didn’t feel the least bit sterile.
34 years down the road, Byrne brought that same sense of exuberantly visual musicianship to the Orpheum Theatre last night; he’ll return tonight with his mobile 11-piece band. They’re not just mobile in the sense of touring, they’re mobile in the sense that beyond a mesh curtain that squares off the stage, there’s not a single static stage prop in the American Utopia set. No drum risers, no mic stands, no miniature Stonehenge. Just a dozen performers (including six percussionists) with their voices and instruments wirelessly amplified. It takes the concept of Stop Making Sense — which famously opened with Byrne and a boombox on an empty stage — a step farther.
The band members don’t just wander aimlessly around the stage, either. Befitting an artist who’s collaborated with dance and theater artists throughout his career, Byrne has the entire show tightly choreographed by Annie-B Parson. Whether dancing in formation, advancing across the stage like infantry, or facing off against their frontman, Byrne’s grey-suited, barefoot band execute tight maneuvers for the better part of two hours. (The setup recalls that of Byrne’s Love This Giant Tour with St. Vincent, which brought the duo to the State Theatre in 2012.)
Byrne is touring behind his newly-released seventh solo studio album; his non-Talking-Heads discography includes numerous other releases, including the St. Vincent album and two collaborations with Brian Eno. American Utopia is an uneasy, uneven album marrying the spoke-sung rumination of David Byrne (1994) with the more celebratory sound of projects like Look Into the Eyeball (2001) — the album that produced the only song in last night’s setlist that came from a proper Byrne solo album other than the latest.
In addition to most of American Utopia, Byrne played eight Talking Heads songs, digging into deeper-cut jams that showcased his band’s ambulatory chops: “I Zimbra,” “The Great Curve,” “Blind.” There were also a few of that band’s well-known songs, including 1983’s “Naive Melody (This Must Be the Place)” — a song about the pleasures of home that’s perhaps unexpectedly become Talking Heads’ most beloved number, as measured by The Current’s recent poll of 893 Essential Songs. The Speaking in Tongues track landed at number 23, ahead of the Beatles’ “Here Comes the Sun,” David Bowie’s “Space Oddity,” and Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean.”
One of many things that distinguishes Byrne from his peers is just how fruitfully he’s collaborated with younger artists, a fact in which he clearly takes justifiable pride. He played the 2009 BPA/Dizzee Rascal bop “Toe Jam” as well as a song from the St. Vincent collaboration; a song from his 2010 Imelda Marcos musical with Fatboy Slim; and “Lazy,” a 2002 X-Press 2 collaboration that was a huge hit in the U.K.
His current young collaborators are his bandmates, who visibly exulted in their complicated maneuvers. (The band includes two women, including ace guitarist Angie Swan. After he was called out on it, Byrne apologized for recording American Utopia exclusively with men.)
The frontman is understandably a little less athletic than the lanky singer who almost instantly worked up a sweat during shows on the Stop Making Sense Tour, but at 66, Byrne retains his inimitable nerdy charisma, highlighted by an opening bit that had Byrne sitting alone onstage at a desk, gesturing at the model of a brain while singing “Here.” For “Once in a Lifetime,” a spotlight caught Byrne to reprise his signature astonished stumble. With white hair flopping around on his head, Byrne today evokes a certain pop artist who heavily influenced the New York scene that produced Talking Heads.
He also retains the social consciousness that’s long marked his career; among his most notable achievements is founding the label Luaka Bop, which has brought numerous global artists to a wider audience. American Utopia doesn’t quite land as a satisfying statement in 2018 (“Every Day is a Miracle” does have a befittingly sardonic quality, albeit nothing that Byrne hasn’t evoked throughout his career) — but Byrne knew where to turn for where the show really needed one.
He closed with a cover of Janelle Monáe’s 2015 song “Hell You Talmbout,” with Byrne picking up a drum to join his band on the percussive litany of black Americans killed by armed racists (including police). The predominantly white, nostalgia-drenched audience didn’t seem to know what to make of the song, which made the repeated chants of “Say his name!” and “Say her name!” feel all the more urgent.
Challenging your audience, Byrne knows, should be about much more than just playing new material. Four-plus decades into his career, he remains a master showman and a vital artist.
David Byrne setlist
Here (American Utopia, 2018)
Lazy (X-Press 2 collaboration, 2002)
I Zimbra (Fear of Music, Talking Heads, 1979)
Slippery People (Speaking in Tongues, Talking Heads, 1983)
I Should Watch TV (Love This Giant, St. Vincent collaboration, 2012)
Dog’s Mind (American Utopia)
Everybody’s Coming to My House (American Utopia)
This Must Be the Place (Naive Melody) (Speaking in Tongues)
Once in a Lifetime (Remain in Light, Talking Heads, 1980)
Doing the Right Thing (American Utopia)
Toe Jam (collaboration with the BPA and Dizzee Rascal, 2009)
Born Under Punches (The Heat Goes On) (Remain in Light, Talking Heads, 1980)
I Dance Like This (American Utopia)
Bullet (American Utopia)
Every Day is a Miracle (American Utopia)
Like Humans Do (Look Into the Eyeball, 2001)
Blind (Naked, Talking Heads, 1988)
Burning Down the House (Speaking in Tongues)
Dancing Together (Here Lies Love, Fatboy Slim collaboration, 2010)
The Great Curve (Remain in Light)
Hell You Talmbout (Janelle Monáe cover)