By Peter Blackstock
Having drawn rave reviews across the country all year, including a spring concert in San Antonio, David Byrne’s inventive stage show pulled into the Austin City Limits Music Festival on Friday and brought light and wonder to a sweltering afternoon.
Byrne’s redefinition of live performance consisted of a dozen-strong troupe performing in a three-sided rectangle shaped by draped silver chains, an ironic setup given that their way-outside-the-box presentation took place essentially inside a box. All dressed in identical gray suits and sandals, the musicians delivered an hourlong set that felt like a cross between dramatic theater and marching-band halftime show.
The material covered both newer Byrne tunes and old Talking Heads favorites such as “Once in a Lifetime,” “Road to Nowhere” and “Burning Down the House.” The latter got the crowd dancing and singing along joyously; other times, the approach was more cerebral — literally so on the first song, which began with Byrne seated at a keyboard and holding a model of a human brain in his left hand.
A brief clip on social media elicited contrasting opinions. One fan who saw Byrne’s show in San Antonio earlier this year called it “top five lifetime for me,” while another suggested cheekily that Byrne was “forever taking pretension to new levels.” Both views feel valid, but on this afternoon at Zilker Park, Byrne’s performance felt like a breath of fresh air, unlike anything seen before on the ACL Fest stage.
Byrne didn’t speak often, probably trying to get as many songs as possible into an abbreviated festival set; those who catch him on Wednesday at Bass Concert Hall no doubt will get a longer show. But when he did address the crowd, he had an agenda. “There are a number of voting organizations here today,” he said, plugging the group Headcount in particular. He took no sides, simply urging people to vote: “It’s not our choice, it’s your choice.”
His last song was more revelatory, a cover of Janelle Monae’s 2015 protest anthem “Hell You Talmbout.” A recitation of names of victims of police and vigilante violence (from Trayvon Martin to Emmett Till) interspersed with the chants “say his name” and “say her name,” it was a powerful set-closer that Byrne said he played because “we all need to make a change.”