By Jimmy Geurts
Imagine you’re David Byrne. You want to do something ambitious and theatrical for the tour of your new album. But your decades-long career has largely consisted of such performances, including actual theatrical productions and Talking Heads’ “Stop Making Sense,” widely considered one of the greatest concert films ever.
Byrne’s solution was to assemble a 12-piece band using wireless setups, freeing them from mic stands or amps to move around the stage in choreographed performances. The results, in a sold-out show Sunday at St. Petersburg’s 2,000-seat Mahaffey Theater, were plenty thrilling.
Concert opener “Here” featured Byrne alone seated at a table holding a model brain like the host of his own Carl Sagan-esque science show, before two backup singers joined him. Other songs featured all 12 performers in what felt less like a stage show and more like a marching band, such as Talking Heads track “Slippery People,” where the six-piece percussion section moved to the forefront while Byrne stood ahead like a conductor.
A third of the 21-song set came from Byrne’s first solo album in 14 years, “American Utopia,” a typically eclectic collection of songs ranging from the subdued “Here” to art-dance single “Everybody’s Coming to My House.” He also played a few earlier solo songs and tracks from his collaborative releases with DJ Fatboy Slim and singer-songwriter St. Vincent.
Then every two or three songs, Byrne would return to Talking Heads, bringing the audience to its feet. A back-to-back performance of “This Must Be the Right Place (Naive Melody)” and “Once in a Lifetime” — two of the best songs of their generation, or ever, really — was particularly tough to beat.
At 66 years old, Byrne’s once jet black hair is now silver-white, but he showed the energy of a performer decades younger. His voice has stayed remarkably consistent, and with the wireless setup, he was moving around on stage perhaps more than ever before.
Unlike some other elder statesmen of rock, Byrne has embraced the musical generations following him, as evidenced by his St. Vincent and Fatboy Slim collaborations. Byrne’s backing band was also largely younger than him, and he brought a hip, young opener in Tune-Yards, whose eccentric art-pop proved a fitting pairing.
Most remarkably, Byrne closed a second encore with a cover of Janelle Monae’s “Hell You Talmbout.” Blending a drum line and protest song, it lists various black Americans killed by police and racial violence such as Trayvon Martin, Walter Scott and Nia Wilson, with the declarations “say his name” or “say her name.”
It served as a reminder that despite the title of his new album, we’re far from an American utopia. But for a joyous, roughly two-hour concert that joined races, nationalities and generations on stage, it almost felt like it.