By Stuart Berman
For the better part of 40 years, the music of David Byrne has served as a gateway from the mainstream to outsider sounds: punk, African funk and sample-based collage, to name just a few. Now 63, Byrne still very much represents a conduit between worlds, only the conversation is moving in the other direction: he’s introducing urbane audiences to an age-old American tradition.
Premiering last night at Toronto’s Air Canada Centre as part of the Luminato arts festival, Contemporary Color is the glorious manifestation of Byrne’s long-simmering obsession with color guard. A combination of cheerleading, flag-waving twirls and synchronized, saber-tossing acrobatics, color guard has been pushed to the literal sidelines of American culture: though initially popularized as an army exercise, today, color guard is most commonly used to hype up crowds at high-school football games. But it also represents an arty intrusion into the otherwise aggro world of pigskin play, its graceful theatricality and thematic impressionism owing as much to modern dance as military procedure.
Beyond indulging an unlikely late-career fascination, Contemporary Color is Byrne’s attempt to reconcile seemingly oppositional entities: sports and art, downtown and suburbia, pop stars and regular folk. His show pairs 10 North American color-guard teams with marquee musicians from across the alterna-verse, each performing a new song specifically written for the routines (which are usually performed to pre-recorded music). And even before Contemporary Color began, its egalitarian ethos was laid bare. In contrast to the standard arena show, where the stage is positioned at one end, the 13-piece house band was lined up on a platform that ran horizontally along the venue’s south side, while audience seating was limited to the ACC’s north-side stands; the two were separated by the vast expanse of the arena’s empty floor, the blank canvas that would display each team’s decorative tarps. The Spartan set-up provided an early indication that even the biggest names onstage would play supporting roles to the color guard crews prancing before them.
From the get-go, Contemporary Color eagerly played up both color guard’s all-American appeal and its avant-garde potential. The 10 vignettes were framed by cheeky, faux-sportscaster banter and amusing behind-the-scenes videos, but this ain’t no glee club, or ROTC. Set to the throbbing goth pop of Brooklyn harmony duo Lucius’ “What’s the Use in Crying,” the opening number saw New York’s Shenendehowa HS wielding color guard’s traditional saber props in sinister tribute to Alfred Hitchcock, with rotating cylindrical platforms serving as crime-scene shower stalls, and the red underside of the dancers’ white skirts suggesting imminent bloodshed. Dev Hynes’ melancholic piano-ballad/disco hybrid “Black Watch” – translated with ballet-like elegance by the namesake Mount Laurel, New Jersey, team – presented wistful images of innocence lost. And it was no surprise that reigning freak-scene queen St. Vincent – her now-famous white frizzy mop reined into tight black curls – lorded over the evening’s most disturbing set piece, “Everyone You Know Will Go Away,” wherein West Chester, Pennsylvania's Field of View team appeared as inmates in a mental asylum, crying for help as the grid-like lines on the floor formed the imaginary cells that imprisoned them. But in its final moments, the song’s brooding, brassy build yielded to an exultant Bowie-esque outro, with a chorus refrain – “come on, you children!” – that transformed this meditation on madness into a triumphant call to arms.
As we learned through Contemporary Color’s increasingly poignant video interstitials, color guard serves a similar mobilizing function for its participants, providing a sense of community and sanctuary during life’s most awkward, painful phase. And through this diverse cast of characters – who comprise a true cross-section of different races, orientations, socio-economic backgrounds, and body types – we see a different, but no less meaningful, realization of the liberating DIY philosophies that once drew to Byrne to punk. (Likewise, the odd flubbed saber toss is easily forgiven by the obvious intensity on display.) Contemporary Color’s most engaging piece, “What Are You Thinking?” paid tribute to this fortitude: atop a bubbling post-rock pastorale composed by Nico Muhly, This American Life host Ira Glass interviewed Trumbull, Connecticutt, troupe Alter Ego about color-guard technique, their recorded quotes perfectly synching up with their IRL movements like a real-time DVD commentary track.
If not every Contemporary Color piece resonated on the same emotional level, each at least yielded a wonderfully WTF, once-in-a-lifetime moment. Like the sight of platinum-plated Canadian diva Nelly Furtado belting out the glossy Nineties R&B of “World Premiere” with disco infiltrator Devonté Hynes and art-funk eccentric Merrill Garbus (a.k.a. Tune-Yards) amid a fireworks-like explosion of streamers. Or How to Dress Well’s Tom Krell unleashing his intensely atmospheric soul balladry while a team from Mechanicsburg, Pennsylvania, in glittery cat suits scurried across a siren-illuminated, blood-splattered floor pattern as if reenacting some Eighties rock video. Or a white-cloaked Zola Jesus channeling her inner Sinéad on the aptly named big-tent anthem “Something Beautiful” (co-written by its originally scheduled singer, Kelis) as Syracuse, New York’s Brigadeers dance elegantly through rows of diagonally arranged benches. There was also the closest thing we’ll get to a Beastie Boys reunion in 2015, with a bass-toting Adam Horovitz and long-time sideman Money Mark offsetting the austere, black-and-grey outfits of a Somerville, New Jersey, squad with the kaleidoscopic space-prog waltz “Quattro Mentos.”
But despite its dramatic shifts in tone, the 100-minute Contemporary Color flowed with the easy fluidity of a compact 10-song album. In service to this continuity, Byrne didn’t even grant himself top billing, performing his fiery, tiki-torched ballad “I Was Changed” in the penultimate slot with Quebecois crew Les Eclipses, while ceding show-closing honors to Tune-Yards’ bizarro robo-clown operetta “Beautiful Mechanical.” And when all the color guard ensembles congregated for the show’s grand flag-waving finale, there was no special spotlight bow for the white-haired man who put it all together; he was having too much fun dancing with the kids on the floor to the band’s disco outro. As the color guard crews made their way to the backstage area, Byrne stepped off to the side to let them shuffle through the corridor, like a proud coach who just needed a moment to come down from the high of a win. And for Byrne, that victory is nothing to shake a saber at: he just transformed a big-city arena into a small-town gymnasium, where the rowdiest hoots and hollers came not from the star-gazers in the crowd, but the friends and families cheering on their team.
Contemporary Color will be staged again tonight (June 23th) at the Air Canada Centre in Toronto, and at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn, New York, on June 27th and 28th.