By Karl Quinn
DAVID BYRNE: AMERICAN UTOPIA ★★★★★
MARGARET COURT ARENA
David Byrne once wrote that "making music is like constructing a machine whose function is to dredge up emotions in performer and listener alike". If so, the machine he's built is working like a dream.
The chief emotion it conjured at Saturday's iteration of his American Utopia tour was pure joy. The cheers and applause from the crowd were deafening, the smiles on the faces of Byrne and his 11 bandmates wide, genuine and – surprisingly, given they have been performing this set since March ("a long time in dog years", he quipped) – pleasantly surprised.
What a buzz it must be to take to the stage each night and discover anew the incredible bonding power of music played with this level of skill, invention, energy and, yes, joy.
At 65, the former Talking Heads frontman remains a charismatic and nimble focal point, but not a selfish one: he was at all times eager to share the love with his co-players. They were all, like him, in bare feet and grey suits; that tension between the buttoned-down (Byrne undid his jacket only in the encore, revealing a shirt drenched in sweat) and the unbridled is at the heart of everything he does.
The show began with Byrne on stage alone, seated at a table, holding a model brain, and singing to and about it in the song Here, from his latest album, American Utopia. Thereafter he was occasionally alone again – at the end of I Dance Like This, which began, brilliantly, with the entire ensemble prostrate on the stage – and then at the end of Bullet, a song about a shooting victim.
That one ended with Byrne illuminated by a single naked standing lamp, which was slowly dragged from the stage. After the plunge to darkness we got an overhead shot on the video screens that showed the spot he had been standing on to be an enlarged photo of a torso pierced by a bullet hole. Chilling.
From beginning to end, this was as much stage show as concert, as much a piece of dance theatre as rock gig. With instruments strapped to their bodies, the musicians were free of risers and cables and amplifiers (thanks to the wonders of radio transmission, not backing tracks).
This was as much stage show as concert, as much a piece of dance theatre as rock gig.
That left them free to roam the stage, to mass and part and regroup like a musical army on the march. It made for the most fluid and dynamic show I have seen.
There are so many great songs in the Byrne back catalogue that it would be easy to bemoan those absent from the set list. What was there was unified, for the most part, by the Afro-funk vibe that first surfaced on 1979’s Fear of Music album with I Zimbra, which got an energetic workout.
There was little of the angular guitar-driven rock of the early years (no Psycho Killer, for instance) in a set driven by bass and drums (typically six percussionists, rising to all 12 in the show-ending cover of Janelle Monae's Hell You Talmbout) and vocal harmonies.
Byrne has been cast in the past – including by himself – as a difficult loner. But here he was engaged and engaging, even taking a few minutes at one stage to discuss the Victorian election and the wonders of mandatory voting (born in Scotland, he only became a US citizen in 2012 after realising he had been voting illegally in US elections until then).
"It doesn't always guarantee good outcomes," he noted of compulsory voting, but it's better than having everything decided by a militant minority. "So congratulations on your mandatory voting. And if you didn't vote, I hope the fine finds you."
But Byrne's music is political only in the broadest sense of urging us to acknowledge the tensions beneath the surface and to get past them, to something better. A utopian vision, perhaps, but as he spoke about change and inclusion – noting that three of his band came from Brazil "and we could not do the show without them" – it felt like a vision worth celebrating.
As the band formed a conga line while playing Road to Nowhere, it's doubtful there was a single person in the crowd not ready and willing to get right in line behind them and start Byrning down the house.
Unique, inventive, uplifting and bursting with positive emotion, this was quite simply one of the finest shows Melbourne has ever seen.