By Pete Chianca
If you’re one of those people who don’t like the sight of feet, David Byrne’s show at the Blue Hills Bank Pavilion Tuesday night might have given you pause -- the former Talking Heads frontman and his 12-piece band were all barefoot as the day they were born.
But that’s about the only faction that I can imagine having anything but the highest praise for Byrne’s exuberant, thoughtful and meticulously choreographed show, featuring a mix of songs from his terrific new album “American Utopia,” Talking Heads classics and rarities, and more than a few surprises.
You know right away this is not your typical rock concert when the only accoutrement on the stage is a schoolhouse desk with a human brain perched atop of it. (Abby ... Normal?) During the opening number, “Here” from “American Utopia,” Byrne sits at the desk alone, eventually holding the globulous organ aloft, Yorick-like, while his lyrics describe its regions and their functions: “Here are too many sounds for your brain to comprehend,” he declares toward the end.
It’s a sentiment that sets the tone for the evening as Byrne’s band makes its gradual appearance, not unlike the way the musicians take the stage in the Talking Heads’ classic 1984 concert film “Stop Making Sense.” But unlike that band (or any I’ve ever seen, frankly), Byrne’s current group is completely unencumbered by risers or amps -- even the drums are strapped, marching-band-like, to their mobile percussionists.
The result is an amazing, fluid, creatively exuberant evening in which the musicians’ movements and interactions are scrupulously matched to the songs they’re performing -- they emerge spookily through the flowing grey curtains, at times marching in a phalanx, other times interacting in smaller cliques like they’re at the most awesome cocktail party ever. (The choreographed movements of Tendayi Kuumba and Chris Giarmo are a particular highlight, especially for certain brave audience members who got in the groove of imitating them.)
And in the center of it all was Byrne, now silver-maned but with the same quirky, reedy voice you remember, both on his new songs and on pitch-perfect takes of Talking Heads classics like “Slippery People” and “I Zimbra.” He may not have the non-stop physicality of 30 years ago -- Byrne ran so much in “Stop Making Sense” it at times resembled an exercise video instead of a concert film -- but his herky-jerky, proto-Kramer gyrations are in ample supply, particularly the now-iconic stumbling spasms that accompany an ecstatic version of “Once in a Lifetime.”
Byrne includes eight Heads songs among his 21-song setlist, and unlike, say, Mark Knopfler -- whose nods to his Dire Straits material in his solo shows tend to feel begrudging if not strictly contractual -- Byrne seems delighted to still be performing the tracks that made him famous. They’re intertwined beautifully and were clearly thoughtfully picked: the set-closing rendition of “Burning Down the House” brings, well, the house down, and Byrne and the band are absolutely stunning as they roar through “Blind” from 1988′s “Naked” album, as clever under-lighting projects their silhouettes in mammoth shadows on the back curtain.
Much of the rest of the setlist -- seven songs -- came from “American Utopia,” a quintessentially Byrne-ian reflection on the sacred and the mundane that somehow manages to make sense of the nonsensical. Its impact is even greater live, with the joyous inclusivity of “Everybody’s Coming to My House” in particular providing a much-needed balm during seemingly insane times. (It’s worth noting Byrne prefaces that song with a short speech imploring people to vote.)
A three-pack of “American Utopia” tracks late in the set is another highlight, with “I Dance Like This” (in which we see exactly what “this” means, and it does not disappoint), the eerily lit “Bullet” and “Every Day Is a Miracle,” in which Byrne captures the spirit of the evening with the line “You’ve got to sing for your supper, love one another.” This segment seemed to lose some factions in the crowd who may have not been familiar with the new album, which is a shame -- make it a point to stream it before you go.
All in all, it’s a pleasure to see a performance prepared with such care and precision and pulled off so well and so creatively -- proof positive that Byrne, at 66, is still growing as an artist without having lost touch with what got him here. And don’t worry, you don’t even see their feet that much.
David Byrne returns to Blue Hills Bank Pavilion in Boston tonight, Wednesday, Aug. 1, at 7:30 p.m. For more information and tickets, visit bostonpavilion.net.