JAMBASE: David Byrne Begins 1st Solo Tour Since 2009 At Count Basie Theatre In Red Bank
By Scott Bernstein
Talking Heads is one of the bands that most comes to mind when the term “art-rock” is thrown around thanks to their ambitious live performances as they aimed to take concertgoers on a journey that went beyond typical live music experiences of the time. David Byrne, the group’s frontman, attended both the Rhode Island School Of Design and the Maryland Institute College Of Art and has infused the visual arts into his music dating back to the formation of the Talking Heads and running through a solo career that started with My Life In The Bush Of Ghosts and is still going strong with the upcoming release of American Utopia. So it should come as no surprise he had ambitious plans for a world tour in support of the LP, which marks his first solo tour since 2009. On Saturday night, Byrne – as part of a 12-piece ensemble – turned his vision into reality at the initial public performance of the American Utopia Tour at the Count Basie Theatre in Red Bank, New Jersey.
When David Byrne announced the first six shows of the tour, he accompanied the news with a note explaining what was in store. The line that jumped out was, “This is the most ambitious show I’ve done since the shows that were filmed for Stop Making Sense,” in reference to Jonathan Demme’s 1984 concert film that not only captured Talking Heads at their best but to this day is still considered one of the best concert films of all-time. After witnessing the two-hour show, there’s no doubt Byrne succeeded in pulling off a concert that’s part visceral live music experience and part performance art of the highest caliber.
When fans entered the theater, they saw a stage that was empty outside of lightweight chains that surrounded the stage and a lone desk with a model of the human brain sitting on it. Byrne’s aim was to present a concert in which the musicians were “untethered,” so that they were able to move freely around the stage without having to worry about wires, amps, drum risers, platforms or monitors. All 12 of the performers came on and off stage during the breaks in each song, as David used a different lineup for each tune. The concert was choreographed down to each note and there was so much going on throughout the evening, fans will want to catch multiple performances. Not because the setlist will change, which is an unlikely possibility, but with so much action on stage, and so many moving parts, it was hard to take in all the little details Byrne and his team put into the riveting stage show.
David Byrne isn’t exactly known for his charisma, yet on Saturday he was a ball of energy. He wore a grey suit throughout and when he took off his jacket during the encore, Byrne’s shirt was completely drenched in sweat. At age 65, he showed no signs that he wasn’t up for the physical demands each concert will bring. Many of the other musicians brought a youthful vibrancy to the performance. The vocalist put together a tremendous band that featured six drummers/percussionists, a guitarist, a bassist, a keyboardist, two dancers/backing vocalists and Byrne himself.
Due to the untethered nature of the show, guitarist Angie Swan and keyboardist Karl Mansfield had particularly tough roles. They each had to provide a multitude of different sounds without the ability to have a pedal board in Swan’s case and a full rig of keyboards in Mansfield’s case. Angie’s playing was a revelation as she nailed iconic parts in such Talking Heads classics as “Once In A Lifetime,” “The Great Curve” and “Born Under Punches.” Mansfield used a single MIDI keyboard controller to re-create Bernie Worrell’s iconic Clavinet and Prophet combo on “Burning Down The House” and the loop that is at the heart of “Once In A Lifetime.”
Bassist Bobby Wooten had a huge grin throughout the 21-song concert and stayed in-the-pocket all night. Not only did he seemingly hit every note, he was marching around stage with as much energy on his first song of the evening as on the last. The dancers and backing vocalists, Chris Giarmo and Simi Stone, were a blur of motion and it was unreal that they were able to stay in pitch while moving so quickly around the stage. Giarmo also acted as a stage hand, bringing in props and lighting elements as necessary, which meant no stage hands were actually on the stage at any point throughout the performance.
The music of David Byrne and the Talking Heads are filled with grooves. As such, the legendary performer tapped six drummers and percussionists to provide the deep grooves over the course of the tour. Longtime Byrne collaborator Mauro Refosco was charged with figuring out how to musically divide the parts between the half-dozen musicians and due to the spectacular job he did, Mauro must be noted as one of the evening’s MVP. Refosco, Tim Keiper (Matisyahu), Aaron Johnston (Brazilian Girls), Gustavo Di Dalva (Gilberto Gil), Davi Vieira (Angelique Kidjo) and Daniel Freedman (Angelique Kidjo) added elements of Brazilian, Cuban and African music to the stew Byrne cooked up. They swapped between setups drummers in marching bands would use, wild percussive instruments, cymbals and congas. Vieira, in particular, made his presence felt each time he took the stage.
It’s hard to fathom the amount of planning and rehearsal that must have gone into the show that debuted in Red Bank. As noted, each step was choreographed and with little on the stage besides the musicians, the role of the lighting designer was huge. The tour’s LD did a magnificent job providing a different vibe for each of the 21 songs played. An aura was coming off the stage that changed with each passing number. The chains that lined the stage didn’t prevent the LD from providing many looks and BlackTrax technology helped spotlight the musicians based on Byrne’s gameplan. Shadows cast onto the chains at points were a sight to behold and among the best looks used in Red Bank.
The material from American Utopia thrived in the live setting. While most of the Talking Heads songs featured the full ensemble, most of the new material saw only a smattering of musicians accompany Byrne. “Bullet” was striking in the way Byrne described a bullet passing through the body. David started the show with the LP’s final track, “Here,” as he began the evening accompanied by only Mansfield. Byrne held a model of a brain in his band and sung about the brain’s role: “Here too many sounds for your brain to comprehend. Here the sound gets organized into things that make some sense. Here is something we call elucidation. Is it the truth? Or merely a description?” Other standouts from American Utopia were the vibrant “I Dance Like This” and the joyous “Every Day Is A Miracle.”
David Byrne selected eight Talking Heads songs to be part of the American Utopia Tour. “I Zimbra” was the first familiar tune of the evening and when concertgoers initially saw the power of the 12-piece ensemble. The choreography for the “Slippery People” that followed was masterful. A highpoint of the main set came with the pairing of “This Must Be The Place (Naive Melody)” and “Once In A Lifetime.” It was hard to find many in Red Bank who sat during the duo of iconic songs. Byrne replicated his spastic dance moves from the “Once In A Lifetime” video during the stellar rendition of the Remain In Light classic. The 1980 album was also represented by “The Great Curve” and “Born Under Punches (The Heat Goes On)” later in the evening. Each was reinterpreted to fit the large ensemble without losing the heart and soul that make the originals so memorable. The lone real surprise when it came to Talking Heads material was the inclusion of “Blind” off Naked.
David Byrne’s main set concluded with “Burning Down The House” and the audience exploded with glee when the 12-strong band kicked into the song. The six drummers pounded out tribal beats as Mansfield channeled Bernie Worrell and Giarmo and Stone ran around the stage. When the song, and main set, concluded, the band was met by a raucous ovation that lasted nearly five minutes. These performers had seemingly worked so long and so hard on pulling off an innovative concert and this was their first time seeing how it played live. Each sported looks that were part relief, part amazement and part appreciation.
When the band returned for the encore, Byrne urged concertgoers to vote and noted a voter registration table will be available at most stops on the tour. He discussed Here Lies Love, his collaboration with Fatboy Slim, and then presented the live debut of “Dancing Together.” David noted every lyric in the song was something Imelda Marcos (widow of Filipino dictator Ferdinand Marcos) had actually said, though he admitted were taken out of context. Byrne & Co. then had nearly everyone on their feet with “Born Under Punches (The Heat Goes On)” before the ensemble left the stage once more. The finale was an emotional climax, as the band unveiled a cover of Janelle Monáe’s “Hell You Talmbout” in which the performers sang the names of African-Americans who had been murdered during encounters with law enforcement.
David Byrne has a long seven months ahead of him in which he’ll bring the physically-demanding show across the globe. It remains to be seen how such an unusually structured performance will work at festivals such as a string of Lollapaloozas in South America, the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival and Panorama. Yet, considering what a remarkable show David Byrne presented on night one, when before the show he asked audience members not to take photos during the first string of shows and mentioned there were still bugs to be worked out, it boggles the mind to imagine just how strong the performances will be when the musicians have a few months under their belts. This show is a must for those who love Byrne, appreciate his willingness to take chances and aren’t expecting a concert stacked with Talking Heads hits.