Words: Justin McDaid
Photography: Owen Humphreys
David Byrne in 3Arena, Dublin, on Wednesday 24th October 2018
It’s somehow fitting, and completely in keeping with the eclectic nature of the man’s career, that the most striking moment of tonight’s David Byrne set comes not through sound, but in a moment when the music cuts out completely. Byrne’s ensemble of musicians/dancers lie immobilised in some sort of death-sleep as I Dance Like This begins, one of them walking through the human wreckage as each gradually arises. The twelve-strong band dance in a gang-like entanglement until the industrial beats that inter-cut the more serene song structure suddenly stop, leaving the dance routine to continue in silence.
Isolating the routine – the contorted faces and angled limbs of the troupe – from the music that gives it context has a startling effect. On its own, the routine becomes suddenly comedic and strangely unsettling, so much so that nervous laughter can be heard around the venue. The effect, dispensed with by a searing strobe and a percussive blitz, lasts for a mere four bars – the sublime to the ridiculous, and back to the sublime, in seconds.
Byrne’s mastery of stagecraft is in little doubt at this stage, and the ‘American Utopia’ tour sees him further explore and deconstruct the idea of what a live concert should be. The distinctions and contradictions – between theatre and gig, poetry and music, musician, dancer and actor – become irrelevant. At any given time the choreography of Byrne’s show, and the characters that deliver it, blur from one thing into another; subtly evolving through skilful movement, subtly rendered lighting effects, and the mix of solo and Talking Heads material.
Without any semblance of a traditional stage set-up, the space is fluid. Byrne’s band are fully mobile; untethered, suited and bare-footed. In fact, the only real stage prop appears before the personnel do, a spartan focussing of attention as the venue fills; a brain on a table, with a chair, illuminated by a shaft of light. Conceptual from the off.
The assembly onstage appear at certain points like school of fish, moving en masse as a kinetic, chaotic singular entity. At other times, pockets of bodies disperse and form their own independent tribes, drawing the eye from one end of the stage to the next. Byrne assures us, if there’s any doubt, that there’s no backing track employed, only the live sounds of his “incredible musicians”. To prove it, he introduces the band one by one, each one individually layering their unique sound until his guitar finally peals out on top.
As Byrne’s body suddenly jerks like a marionette and teeters from stage point to stage point, it can mean only one thing. Once In A Lifetime, then, is triumphant. The ensuing Doing The Right Thing leaves Byrne onstage alone, a multitude of disembodied hands appearing from behind the gauze strips that surround the stage, hammering on drums before it all thunders into a tribal throw-down in the mid-section.
Byrne’s band of collaborators are impossible to pigeon-hole – they flit from loose mariachi band to military formation, free-form to phalanx, and everything else in between. Indeed, the lengthy guitar solo in The Great Curve is as close as we’ve come all night to a ‘traditional’ rock’n’roll trope, before the set’s closer takes things right back to basics with a cover of Janelle Monáe’s Hell You Talmbout – all hands on drumskins and a tribalistic vocal chant.
At one point, here in what was once The Point Theatre, Byrne tells us with a mixture of sincerity and humour, “This is my first time here…I’ve been here before.” It’s as unambiguous as it is abstract – just like tonight’s superb performance piece. Just like Byrne himself.