David Byrne builds a night of magnificent art rock in Des Moines

Via Des Moines Register

Photo: Brandon Dill / Special to The Commercial Appeal

By Matthew Leimkuehler

David Byrne started his show with a mind in his hands.

That’s not a metaphor. He actually started the show sitting barefoot, behind a table, with a toy brain clutched between his fingers.

“Here is a region of abundant details,” he sings. “Here is a region that is seldom used. … Here is a region that continues living, even when the other sections are removed.”

Those words come from “Here,” the closing track of Byrne’s March release, “American Utopia” — his first solo effort in nearly 14 years. The former Talking Heads frontman returned Tuesday night to Des Moines, playing to 1,455 faithful at the Des Moines Civic Center.

Part of the "American Utopia" world tour, it was the first of what would be a 21-song performance showcasing Byrne’s four decades of acclaimed rock ‘n’ roll experimentation.

A mobile band. Choreographed takes on the Talking Heads. Multiple encores.

Nothing felt off-limits. And, at a David Byrne show, that's how it should be.

“It’s good to be back in the Des,” he said, giving a subtle nod to his 2013 and 2014 visits to Iowa’s capital city.

Building up the house: Byrne built his 11-piece mobile band in front of the Iowa audience, reaching a full outfit by the night’s third track and introduction to Talking Heads, “I Zimbra.”

A half-dozen percussionists circled the stage at any given moment, joining keys, guitar, bass and a pair of backing dancers.

Photo: Daniel Ojeda/Pabst Theater Group

Not unlike the Broadway musicals that frequent the Civic Center stage. Songs such as “I Should Watch TV,” “Once in a Lifetime” and “I Dance Like This” were choreographed to each note.

It wasn’t just added entertainment, though. These gestures added depth to each song, telling a slice of the story that isn’t found in song or word.

This could be somber, like with Byrne silhouetted under a light pole, singing from “Bullet,” a 2018 number: “The bullet went into him. It went its merry way. … Like an old gray dog on a fox's trail.”

Or it could be euphoric, like in the climatic final chorus of the next track, “Every Day is a Miracle.”

“Every day is miracle. Every day is an unpaid bill. You've got to sing for your supper; love one another,” he sings.

A shoeless 65-year-old Byrne, donning a grey suit and matching hair, orchestrated each with a shuffle and a smile.

Thirty-six years since he and Talking Heads first played Des Moines and he’s still that damn cool.

Photo: Brandon Dill / Special to The Commercial Appeal

Dancing (encores) Together: The Talking Heads songs, the solo songs, the Fatboy Slim collaborations … each led to the show stopping (first) finale, “Burning Down The House.”

Driven by its percussion backbone, the band lined the stage as its audience led the final chant of "Burning Down The House." The last note was met, as most songs were, with a standing ovation.

That was it ... until the 12 musicians returned to give a still-hungry crowd two more tracks: "Here Lies Love" musical number "Dancing Together" and 1980's Talking Heads cut "The Great Curve."

But it didn't end there, either.

Photo: Daniel Ojeda/Pabst Theater Group

Byrne and company returned for a second encore: A cover of Janelle Monáe's "Hell You Talmbout."

“This song’s by Janelle Monáe,” Byrne said. “She came out with this song three years ago … and sadly it’s still as relevant now as it was then. Very graciously, she’s allowed us to update it.”

The band proceeded to deliver a five-minute rendition of “Hell You Talmbout,” a protest song that bellows the name of African-Americans who died by racial violence.

The band marched, bellowing “say his name” between chats of Phillip White, Trayvon Martin and others.

For that moment, on a night of primary elections, it was Iowa’s most political room. An end onlookers won’t forget soon … and that’s the point.

The “American Utopia” world tour continues Thursday in Kansas City.


I Zimbra
Slippery People
I Should Watch TV
Dog's Mind
Everybody's Coming To My House
This Must Be The Place (Naive Melody)
Once in a Lifetime
Doing the Right Thing
Toe Jam
Born Under Punches (The Heat Goes On)
I Dance Like This
Every Day Is A Miracle
Like Humans Do
Burning Down The House

Dancing Together
The Great Curve

Encore 2:
Hell You Talmbout (Janelle Monáe cover)

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