This ain’t no party, this ain’t no disco – this ain’t no fooling around.
I’m not sure if I have the words to adequately or accurately describe what I witnessed at Dublin’s 3 Arena last night, but here goes.
The show opens with a blacked out stage and in the middle is a table and single chair. On the table is a human brain. There is birdsong.
Welcome to David Byrne’s American Utopia tour.
A keyboard plays and Byrne takes the stage and sings the intro to “Here” while the sides and back of the stage slowly rise up to reveal an expanse of silver beaded curtains. The band arrive slowly on stage, clad in identical grey suits and barefoot, their instruments strapped on.
Overall, the show is a mix of songs from Byrne’s latest album American Utopia intermixed with some Talking Heads material and a few other bits and pieces. We get some of the older stuff early on with “I Zimbra” and “Slippery People” being blasted out by 6 (count them) sets of drums.
The instruments change over the course of the evening, but there are generally anywhere between 3 and 7 people on percussion, a keyboard, a bass guitar, an electric lead and two backing singers/dancers.
Byrne’s world music influences are on public display – especially African and South American. Hands appear, reaching instruments through the beaded curtains, then taking them away. Groups form onstage, disperse and re-form. Everything is perfectly choreographed. “Lazy” seems to thrown in almost as an after-thought and picks up where the X-Press2 remix left off –faster and getting everyone on their feet.
Byrne is more talkative and interactive that he used to be; he prefaces “Everybody’s Coming To My House” with an explanation of hearing a school group singing it and realising that they had found the meaning of the song that he had missed; he was maybe joking a little but the themes of inclusivity and immigration are both obvious and relevant.
There are some songs that are absolutely massive; “This Could Be The Place” just exudes warmth and happiness; The full band version of “Once In A Lifetime” blew the roof of the arena and we saw the use of dynamic and dramatic lighting for the first time – spots pick out and follow Byrne while the band flit in and out of the shadows.
Byrne uses a story about wanting to prove that he doesn’t use any loops or samples to produce tonight’s sound, as an excuse to introduce the band (don’t be expecting any name-checks – there were twelve of them) and then using this as the springboard for a fabulous version of “The Great Curve” from Remain in Light.
We get Byrne solo on stage, lit by a single light bulb for the slow and mournful “Bullet” while the band parade slowly around him in darkness. We get full-on samba-style for “Everyday is a Miracle”, very different from the album version, and I realised that I had never actually paid attention to the lyrics of this. The line “A cockroach may eat Mona Lisa – the Pope means shit to a dog” brought the house down.
“Blind”, the title track from Talking Head’s final album, is a funked-up track, with the most creative use of shadows and silhouettes I’ve seen on stage anywhere. This is followed up by the final track of the set, “Burning Down The House” which is as near to a total assault on the senses as you could get. The percussion was powerful, explosive and felt like getting kicked hard in the chest – imagine getting stuck in a lift with a bunch of enthusiastic lambeg drummers and you might get close to the effect of this. The lights are red, green – flames everywhere at times.
The applause was phenomenal and seemed to go on forever until Byrne and the band returned to the stage for the first of two encores. “Road To Nowhere” was a fairly obvious crowd-pleaser – marching band bumping up against vocal harmonies; “Born Under Punches” was frantic and choppy with a shredding guitar break that sounded like it had come straight from the late, great Prince.
More bows, more applause, more stamping feet and the night ends on an unusual choice of song – Janelle Monáe’s “Hell You Talmbout.” A modern and powerful protest song that lists the names of African-Americans who have died at the hands of the law or racial violence, it covers deaths as far apart in time as Emmmet Till and Trayvon Martin.
This was no party, this was no disco – this was no fooling around. It was tremendous fun though. This was concert meets interpretive dance meets an army of drums meets great songs. The musical arrangements are complex and intricate, yet they give the impression of being easy and carefree. The dancing and staging is choreographed right down to the tiniest detail. The overall effect was, at times overwhelming.
I’ve always regretted never getting the chance to see Talking Heads play live, but this went 99% of the way towards scratching that particular itch.