By Bernard Zuel
ICC Sydney Theatre, November 20
This was a feast. A glorious, satisfying, lasting in the gut and cortex and fingertips, experience that peaked, and peaked again, and then came home with exultation in a breathlessly wonderful final half hour.
It began with the man seated at a table, holding a plastic brain pointing out to us “a region of abundant details … a region that is seldom used …a region that continues living, even when the other sections are removed”, and ended with a chanted recitation of the names of Africa-Americans killed by the police. And yet was about celebrating the value of our experiences, the worth of trust in others, and the possibility for change.
It drew from Africa and South America and urban North America, both their respective mechanics of religion and celebrations and their innate qualities of confidence and fear, while giving a universal sense of the pleasure in/from others.
It featured a man who built a persona, if not a career, out of physical awkwardness and social isolation, engaged in a society of movement and joy, deference and partial abandonment of restraint.
There were a dozen bodies in motion on an empty stage – and by empty, I mean not a skerrick of equipment, not a prop after the opening number, not a backdrop; just three sides of beaded curtain – dressed in grey suits, bare feet and yearning to explore.
All instruments were strapped on, from busy drum kits and percussion arrays (for the six percussionists who dazzled at every turn, and left my percussionist friend panting with desire and envy) and guitars (astonishingly adept bassist and guitarist), to a full-sized synthesiser.
This meant they could all move in intricate patterns and loose-limbed dances, synchronised steps and seemingly effortless performances of physically demanding work.
And when they stopped moving as the music pushed on, or for one moment when the music stopped but the bodies kept making shapes, your eyes and ears remained stimulated, engaged, excited. It’s not that you didn’t know where to look; it’s that it didn’t matter where you looked or what you heard, something was happening to you.
I don’t mean like those high-concept pop shows where the audience is not allowed to be in repose for even a second lest attention drift and you walk away feeling like all senses have been worked over. Rather this worked like a dish of multiple - intersecting, alternating, contrasting – flavours that kept letting off little bombs on your tongue while adding something to the base notes.
Although everything was choreographed (by Annie B Parson who also was responsible for the hugely entertaining 2013 David Byrne/St Vincent tour with dancing brass band, which seems now like a dry run for this concept), and the show is tightly structured, there was never a sense that this was performance by rote.
The interaction between performers, their projection to us, and the clear connection they all were making to the music and the message, gave a sense of freshness that felt like spontaneity. It felt like unadulterated fun, basically.
That message is worth looking at in more detail too, especially for a man who has always – and still does in terms of blatant stating of it - messaging.
Whereas the defining element of Byrne’s time with Talking Heads, at least the first half of their career, was an edge of paranoia and a black hole of anti-social matter, and his solo career has at times been ambiguous about all the social options available to us, this American Utopia tour is clearer about our place and our worth.
Byrne is turning into a believer in humans and an espouser of unity. Note how, after hearing it performed by some school children, he’s subtly changed the performance of the new song Everybody’s Coming To My House to suggest this even may be welcomed rather than an encumbrance. And how Bullet, which finely details the progress and damage of a bullet into a body, still finds a way to speak of resilience and hope.
How the songs from the most paranoia-tinged years, such as Born Under Punches (“Take a look at these hands … the hands speak, the hands of a government man”) and The Great Curve (“Sometimes the world has a load of questions/Seems like the world knows nothing at all “) in varying degrees were tempered by the interplay of the multi-percussion force with those snaking guitars, or the cross-currents of cerebral voices and hip-level basslines.
Or how This Must Be The Place now emphasises the pleasure in the song’s move from yearning for home and safety to realising you might already be there, and the way Slippery People has removed any question of the rightness in the fact that “these slippery people, help us understand”.
And then how the fun had at the antics of Imelda Marcos, in Toe Jam – from his musical written with Fatboy Slim, Here Lies Love – didn’t tip into cruelty, and the Afro-funk stayed true to itself while altering the tenor at times with lighter Latin feels, most noticeably in the thrilling I Zimbra, but also the big stomping set closer, Burning Down The House.
What’s the matter with him? He’s alright … love from the bottom to the top.
Speaking of which. One of the greatest nights I’ve spent watching music was in January 1984 when Talking Heads, moving from a tense one man+boombox+guitar to a dozen or so musicians, singers and dancers in full Afro-funk/pop exultation, elevated a field on the Central Coast of New South Wales into a site of mass celebration, dance and release.
That tonight’s David Byrne show felt musically like a natural extension of that night - similarly drawing heavily on the three Afro-influenced albums, Fear Of Music, Remain In Light and Speaking In Tongues, which were the foundations for the original tour.
That it connected in spirit and flesh with the ideas and the impact - there were clear dance references to the jerky stagger Byrne employed at the beginning of those 1984 shows (when the boombox drum beats snapped his body like gunshots spinning him around), to the film clip for Once In A Lifetime, where his oddball manner and now-iconic gestures made art out of awkwardness, and to the fluidity he, the singers and dancers displayed, as captured in the Jonathan Demme film Stop Making Sense, while incorporating the semi-martial moves from the 2013 shows, is another.
That while it didn’t surpass it – come on, after 34 years without being topped, it is never likely to happen is it? – it did elevate both the memory and the new principles to something worthy of being discussed in the same space.
Well, that’s just about the highest praise I can offer.
David Byrne plays:
Gold Coast Convention Centre, tonight
Margaret Court Arena, Melbourne, November 24
Adelaide Entertainment Centre, Adelaide, November 25