David Byrne @ SSE Hydro, Glasgow, 22 Oct
There are very few, if any, artists that are bringing this level of innovation and joy to the stage and David Byrne's American Utopia tour is his most ambitious since Talking Heads' Stop Making Sense
It's been almost 30 years since the demise of Talking Heads and in that time David Byrne has released various solo and collaborative projects, as well as other artistic endeavours, but hasn't enjoyed the spotlight as fervently as in his 80s heyday. This tour, however, is an epic return and fully lives up to its billing as his most ambitious project since the landmark Stop Making Sense tour. There are very few, if any, artists that are bringing this level of innovation and joy to the stage.
We open with a seated Byrne, alone on the expansive stage with just a prop brain on a table for company. As the lights slowly rise, the show feels more like minimalist theatre than a pop concert. As he starts to wander the stage, serenading the brain, he's joined by his two backup vocalists/dancers (Chris Giarmo and Tendayi Kuumba) who seem representative of the duality and symbiosis that threads itself through so much of Byrne's music. Four minutes later and we're in the middle of X-Press 2's house classic Lazy, co-written and featuring Byrne, with a dozen musicians scattered around the stage, hip-shaking in unison. And this is the beauty of tonight's setup; with the whole band untethered and mobile there are endless possibilities for inventive choreography.
While American Utopia felt a little spotty at times, jumping too free-handedly from idea to idea, its stage companion demonstrates just how these songs are supposed to be heard (and seen). I Dance Like This features some fabulously weird moves, while Bullet becomes a literal torch song as only a portable (and self-moving) upright beacon illuminates the stage, and lesser-performed Gasoline and Dirty Sheets – something of an outlier on record – fits in perfectly among the classics.
Classic Talking Heads songs do the heavy lifting when it comes to audience familiarity (This Must Be the Place (Naive Melody) followed by Once in a Lifetime being the most ecstatically joyful piece of fan service imaginable), but it's the intricate and progressive visual elements that make this show so much more than just great songs performed well. For much of the night it feels like Byrne is being backed by a second line parade, one that is forever in motion but can never reach its destination, creating synchronised concentric circles before scattering to the wind for the next meticulously timed song.
Byrne is typically awkward during improvised moments, fumbling through his band introductions and giving heartfelt thanks and political opinions in the same rambling breath, but whenever a song begins he knows exactly what to do; dancing, posing, gesticulating and running across the stage with manic glee (or fear as he's being cornered on I Should Watch TV). One of the most impressive displays of the night comes with Blind, during which Byrne and band are made into giant shadows against the beaded curtains that surround the stage – a ridiculous demonstration of the thought, control and practice that has gone into this tour.
After an uproarious encore of Road to Nowhere and The Great Curve, the final song of the night comes courtesy of Janelle Monae's protest anthem, Hell You Talmbout. Its subject matter appears a little detached at first (chanting off names of Black Americans killed through encounters with police and/or racial violence), but David Byrne has always been a globalist (in arrangements and lyricism), and in our fraught political climate it is worth remembering that we must be united in the face of injustice, regardless of where it's perpetrated. It's the most overtly political moment of the night, but one that rounds off the evening neatly; amidst the impressive artisitic exhibitions and celebratory funk classics, the show finds a resonance that will stay with the audience long after the final bow.