By Tom Szaroleta
Every band needs a good drummer. Some will even put two on the stage at the same time, to really crank up the rhythm.
For David Byrne, that’s just not good enough. A half-dozen drummers sounds about right.
Byrne, the former Talking Heads frontman touring behind an excellent new record, “American Utopia,” put on an “untethered” show Wednesday night at the Florida Theatre. That means Byrne and his band — all 11 of them, dressed identically in grey suits and barefoot — were literally not bound to the stage in any way. They were free to roam about, carrying a guitar or drum or keyboard with them. Not that they were randomly drifting around the stage — the show was carefully choreographed, with every move planned out. Byrne even threw in a few dance moves, hardly Britney-level stuff but certainly more than one might expect from a 66-year-old Rock and Roll Hall of Famer.
The show was more performance art than rock concert. It opened with Byrne sitting on a wooden chair, a human brain on the table in front of him. That was one of the few props used all night; Byrne told his stories through the lyrics and the motion on the stage. The stage was absolutely bare-bones, a blank canvas surrounded on three sides by a beaded curtain reaching to the ceiling. Musicians would fade in and out through the curtain and no one sat down on stage for the entire show (except for Byrne, for dramatic effect). During one song, the players stood behind the curtain with the instruments in front of it, creating an odd scene of disembodied guitars and keyboards. For another, the band was lit from down low, throwing massive shadows onto the bead curtain.
That’s not to say the music wasn’t important. Byrne leaned heavily on “American Utopia,” but sprinkled a few other solo hits in with a fair dose of Talking Heads numbers. He played a little bit of guitar but left most of the music to the band and concentrated on the vocals (and those dance moves). “Slippery People” was an early highlight, “This Must Be the Place” and “Once in a Lifetime” livened things up in the middle and a positively funky “Blind” led into “Burning Down the House” late in the set.
The songs tended to be a little percussion-heavy (six drummers playing a bewildering variety of instruments will tend to do that) and it was a little hard to believe all that sound was coming from one keyboard, one guitar, one bass and all that percussion. But on “Born Under Punches,” Byrne took the time to prove it, building the complex song one instrument at a time.
Byrne could easily have gone on the road with a standard four-piece band, playing his hits. Kudos to him for trying something truly different.