Part musical concert, part dance, part performance piece, part kinetic sculpture, David Byrne's latest American Utopia Tour settled into a slightly abbreviated stop at CityFolk Festival in Ottawa. The show has been gathering an endless stream of positive reviews, and fan appreciation. Really, the reason why this seems to resonate so deeply amongst the wide-ranging demographic that makes up David Byrne fans base is a little perplexing. Minimalist in design, the performance is endlessly engaging and transforming. Within the somewhat self referential opening of the show, (so similar in idea to Stop Making Sense, with David Byrne at centre stage in bleak surroundings and alone), the audience is drawn in and seduced by the stark setting, grey leisure suit, bare feet, desk, chair and a “brain” carrying showman. David sucks you in and before you know it we are living in Dave’s Byrne Big World. With no explicit narrative, there is the thread of positivity, and hopefulness that permeates the overall exploration of design, form, and movement. The overall effect of the show is Kinetic Sculpture… using humans and the occasional simple prop, Byrne leaves enough room to transpose your imagination onto the dance and the forces that cause and create movement.
The latest record, American Utopia, deeply benefits from the continued collaboration with Brian Eno, making it Byrne highest chart topping success. The time is ripe for some positivity, but American Utopia and recent projects are filtered through the eyes of the modern condition. Tracks like, “Lazy”, and “I Should Watch TV, which are both collaborations with St. Vincent, were sobering reminders of the bleak separation and general malaise that encompasses so much of our daily encounters. On stage, the band was watching a “tv” that was simply a beam of light glowing off of the hanging chain link strands that boxed in the stage’s back and sides. David Byrne rolls up his sleeves, miming shooting up, and sings “touch me, and feel my pain”, suggesting that the drugging of our nation is a response to the alienation from the advent of technology, and an environment where we can be instantly be connected to each other, but still suffer the painful isolation and solitariness of being lost in society. The idea of “Utopia” is not a delusional pipe dream, but one tempered by an understanding that it is an ongoing struggle, and that it is a work in progress. It is often overlooked that “Utopia” is part of a larger project that David Byrne is engaged in. The project, which borrows a title from Ian Dury and the Blockhead’s song “Reasons to Be Cheerful, Part 3”, which ironically was written in the U.K. during the Margret Thatcher years. Within the context of this bigger project David Byrne ’s “Reasons to Be Cheerful”, looks at the complexities of the urban environment, and the subtle but transformative cues, like the changing impact of increased bicycle use on our daily life, our outlook, our habits, and the environment. Byrne is looking at the ways to change our perspectives by engaging with the world in more direct and meaningful ways. The bombardment of images and messages that promote fear and dread, largely propagated by media, corporations and the government, is what the authorities want you to feel. This is part of a “Hegelian dialect”, that keep the power structures oppressing individuals in society, and allow the exploitation of those individuals at the same time. “They” want you to live in fear, keep you at bay and use this as leverage for policies and attacks on freedoms and liberties. The “Reasons to Be Cheerful” project, is a plea to turn off the fear mongering media messages, and re-engage in your community, make real human connections and participate in civic issues. In other words, he is hoping that people simply get involved in a direct and meaningful way to make the world a better place, no matter how small the contribution may seem. Walk to the store instead of driving, bike more, grow your own food, and to be really subversive, smile more. Yes, smile more, and if you do, you may soon notice, people will smile back.
All of this is a subtext to a performance which is at its core is a celebration of joy, music, and movement. The fluidity of the dance, the freedom of the musicians to move freely, the stripped-down aesthetic gives a lot of opportunity for the audience to celebrate alongside. The entry point into the performance is easy, nothing really stands between the performer and audience, and this transforms the event into a giant kinetic experience. The energy of the dance was infectious for the audience at CityFolk. With the side screens that usually give the back 40 a good close up of the performance, were black. The only way to experience the show was by directly watching it. There was no way to filter the experience through another medium. The stage design was as striking from the dead centre 30 feet out, as it was from the back of the Great Lawn. The stage glowed with a shimmering intensity, the dancing so bold and engaging that no matter where you stood, you were in on the action. Of course, it was the music that propelled the dance, and the Ottawa crowd dropped it usual conservatism and boogied right along. There were more balls out dancing then I have ever seen at an Ottawa show. It was very heartening to be in the middle of this energy, and be able to dance with abandon at the foot of the master of polyrhythmic cross-cultural musical mayhem. I have seen David Byrne perform over the years, including the small understated tour that he did after the St. Vincent collaboration. On that tour, he played mostly his back catalogue of Talking Heads material. Although this tour was incredibly satisfying, in all sincerity, Ottawa shock their collective money maker just like I remembered at “The Remain In Light Tour” of 1981. This was a watershed moment for me, at only 14 years of age, (with The English Beat as an opener), my life was transformed. I danced for the first time that night. And I mean really danced. With abandon. Forgetting time and space, and dissolving into rhythm and movement. Pure joy. Pure celebration.
Lots of smiles.
Just like Ottawa.
Two songs were dropped from the set list that has been commonly played on this tour. Both “Bullet, and the unrecorded live song, “Dancing Together”, were dropped from previous shows. A slightly different song order was also an unusual feature of this rare outdoor festival performance. Most venues have been sit-down theatres, like the two summer shows in Toronto, at the Sony Centre. So, it was very heartening to see Ottawa take advantage of the setting, and cut a deep rug on The Great Lawn. The bulk of the set list was from “American Utopia”, and smatterings of the Talking Heads back catalogue. A little less then half the show saw a survey of some of the Talking Heads best material, and there was a lovely shout out to David Byrne's many collaborations with a light-hearted Fatboy Slim (The Brighton Port Authority) number called “Toe Jam”. Deep tracks like “I Zimba”, “Once in a Lifetime”, and the “Great Curve”, had the most resonance with the audience. I suspect, as was the case with me, that the older Talking Heads pieces transported us back to our youth and the start of our musical awakenings. I heard many a side conversation re telling which album and at what age people discovered the Talking Heads. From “77”, through to “My Life in the Bush of Ghosts”, to the underrated last record “Naked”, everyone seemed to hold high reverence to their David Byrne initiation. Now, I’m a realist, and not someone prone to using my rose coloured glasses to view my past. As awe-inspiring as this tour is, I can not shake the idea of how notoriously difficult David Byrne is to work with. Often, and especially for this incredibly intricate performance, David Byrne gets a pass on his curmudgeon demeanor. I suspect that as free-flowing and celebratory as the performance appeared, there is an iron hand driving the performance and its aesthetics. Initially, the “American Utopia” tour was booked into several venues and then canceled… Burlington and Montreal come to mind. It is my understanding that the stage set up did not meet David Byrne's minimal requirements, leaving several cities out of the mix. Not that this is necessarily a bad thing, it is his tour, and his vision, and a fine one at that. One opinion that i seemed to share with only myself, was that the band was not near as powerful as “The Remain in Light” band that had Adrian Belew, and Busta Jones and, well everyone really… in the shadows of my mind, this band was different than the Talking Heads. I would like to think that comes down to ownership… the fellow founding members of the Talking Heads, Chris Frantz, and Tina Weymouth owned the material, shaped it and created it. When the original Talking Heads played, they were nothing short of dangerous, and provocative. They were a machine with many moving parts, that sometimes felt like they would implode, but rarely did. The “American Utopia” band felt like they were hitting their cues, and marks, but not free enough to soar above the clouds. Wonderful they were, and I appreciate that this is at best nitpicking, but 1981 this wasn’t. What we did get was a peek into the future of stage performance. With the advent of technology freeing our collective constraints, this novel approach to an unfettered musical experience will become more common, and perhaps even the norm in a few years. Bravo to David Byrne for using a minimalist approach to high light the physical freedom and collective dynamic energy to bring a joyful celebration of music, dance and performance art to the wonderment of all in attendance. This was a real coup for CityFolk and a very high water mark for next years performers.
Set List David Byrne September 14, 2018, CityFolk The Great Lawn Landsdowne Park Ottawa
- I Zimbra (Talking Heads song)
- Slippery People (Talking Heads song)
- I Should Watch TV (David Byrne & St. Vincent cover)
- Dog's Mind
- Everybody's Coming to My House
- This Must Be the Place (Naive Melody) (Talking Heads song)
- Once in a Lifetime (Talking Heads song)
- Doing the Right Thing
- Toe Jam (Brighton Port Authority cover)
- Born Under Punches (The Heat Goes On) (Talking Heads song)
- I Dance Like This
- Every Day Is a Miracle
- Like Humans Do
- Blind (Talking Heads song)
- The Great Curve (Talking Heads song)
- Burning Down the House (Talking Heads song)
- Hell You Talmbout (Janelle Monáe cover) (with Merrill Garbus) (also with Ani DiFranco)
If you want to explore more about the Talking Heads, David Byrne and the Reasons to be Cheerful movement, check out the links below. Well worth your time. Now smile, dammit.
An Introduction to The Talking Heads
Well How Did We Get Here? A Brief History of Talking Heads
An Audience Video of the American Utopia Tour (complete performance)
Lecture/Talk by David Byrne
David Byrne - Reasons To Be Cheerful talk - Jan. 8, 2018