David Byrne’s Performance Art, Activism, and Nonstop Groove

Photo courtesy of Grandstand Media.

David Byrne

August 1, 2018 at Blue Hills Bank Pavilion


Individuals expecting to come to a regular concert during David Byrne’s sold out performance at the Blue Hills Bank Pavilion would come to be pleasantly surprised as soon as the night began. With Byrne claiming that his current tour supporting his first solo album in 14 years, American Utopia, as the “most ambitious show” since the Talking Heads’ 1984 documentary Stop Making Sense, the bar was set incredibly high. Having seen Byrne and St. Vincent during their Love This Giant tour in Hollywood following their 2012 collaborative album, I had already caught a glimpse of the musical genius and his dynamic stage presence.

As the lights came on, a seated David Byrne appeared alone, brain in hand. Beginning the set with ‘Here,’ Byrne began gesturing to the different lobes of the brain and narrating “Here is a region of abundant details / Here is a region that is seldom used” with his index finger pointing to a different area with each new descriptor. As he stood up from the yellow chair and moonwalked with the brain still in his grasp, his two main backup singers appeared out of the chain curtain that lined the back of the stage and began interpretive dancing.

Immediately following the humble and relatively quiet start of ‘Here,’ Byrne’s 12-piece band, barefoot and grey suited, leapt out of the darkness and launched into ‘Lazy,’ a song that encouraged the audience of mostly middle-aged white people to fly out of their seats and start dancing. The band continued to sway with the rhythm, and the backup singers continued interpretive dancing as David Byrne was brought out a guitar as white as his hair.

Ending the ironically energetic ten minutes of ‘Lazy,’ the crowd gained even more momentum as the band accelerated into the 1979 Talking Heads hit ‘I Zimbra,’ with lyrics consisting of literal nonsensical gibberish. With the band and Byrne moving and dancing with tribal-like choreography, they went from one Talking Heads song into the next. As the mobile band brought out even more bongos for ‘Slippery People,’ flashing lights accompanying the funky beat highlighted Byrne’s complex dance moves.

Having been inspired by his tour with St. Vincent, it was perfectly fitting for him to play a song from their collaborative album. A purple tinted glow illuminated Byrne from the right side of the stage as if he were watching television in a completely darkened room as the band stayed in the shadows for ‘I Should Watch TV.’ With blaring horns and the lyrics, “I feel it moving in my arms and fingers / Touch me and feel happy,” Byrne rolled up his sleeve and slapped his inner elbow, mimicking the movement of a heroin user who is about to inject the drug.

Byrne then performed ‘Dogs Mind,’ a bold critique of current U.S. President Donald Trump, and afterwards took a moment to tell the audience about Headcount, a volunteer organization that goes to music festivals and registers people to vote on the spot. He urged the audience to vote in every election, no matter how big or small.

Hopping back into the music, Byrne and his band performed ‘Everybody’s Coming to My House,’ followed by the Talking Heads classic, ‘This Must Be the Place (Naive Melody).’ During the lyrics “Love me til’ my heart stops” Byrne and the band all looked at their watches in silence for 5 seconds until the beat kicked back up. This comedic moment lended itself well to the next Talking Heads song, ‘Once in a Lifetime,’ during which Byrne stumbled across the stage, looking disheveled and confused, singing the lines “And you may ask yourself, well / How did I get here?”

Introducing ‘Toe Jam,’ Byrne described how he originally worked on the song with Fatboy Slim and rapper Dizzee Rascal, suggesting everyone check out the NSFW music video. Once the song ended, Byrne took a moment to tell the audience that everything they were hearing was not pre-recorded but was, in fact, live and coming from himself and the 12-piece band they saw in front of them. Following band introductions, the beat picked up for ‘Born Under Punches (The Heat Goes On),’ another Talking Heads song that the man standing next to me had said he was hoping to hear that night.

For ‘I Dance Like This,’ I couldn’t help but laugh at the satirical nature of the dance moves. Considering the meticulously calculated choreography for the rest of the set, Byrne and his band purposefully performed awkwardly robotic dance moves while singing “I dance like this / Because it feels so damn good / If I could dance better / Well, you know that I would.” Once again effectively cutting the music for 5 seconds, the band awkwardly fist pumped – mimicking the only dance move that so many Americans know.

The humor of ‘I Dance Like This,’ was followed with the poignant ‘Bullet,’ during which Byrne stood alone on the stage illuminated by a single lamp that glided away towards the end of the song. For ‘Blind,’ lights were projected from the bottom of the stage so that Byrne and the band members’ shadows were projected onto the chain curtain behind them. Stepping closer and further away from the light, the shadows would shrink and grow into giant-sized silhouettes. This simple but nonetheless amazing optical illusion left me and the audience in awe.

With not one, but two encores, the show ended with a powerful cover of Janelle Monáe’s ‘Hell You Talmbout,’ in which Byrne and the band screamed to “Say their names!” each time after they listed the name of an African American who had been killed by the police in the recent years. Using his platform as a musician for activism, Byrne ended his set by encouraging people to remember the names of individuals like Michael Brown and Sandra Bland.

After an energetic and powerful performance, one would never guess that David Byrne is 66 years old, as he has still has the energy to keep the groove flowing for over an hour straight without stop. In what could best be described as ambitious performance art, Byrne and his 12-piece band delivered a stunning performance with an articulately crafted setlist spanning from his work with the Talking Heads to his solo career and collaborative albums. Showcasing his talent and his passion, Byrne not only put on a great show, but also brought attention to important current issues such as voting and police brutality.

Listen to American Utopia:

About Kathryn Garcia 9 Articles
Kathryn Garcia is a third year cultural anthropology student minoring in art. Originally from San Diego, she believes California is heaven on earth. In addition to writing for the media team, she is the Podcast Director for WRBB and you can catch her radio show, Sweet Jams, from 7-8PM on Mondays.

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