“It may just be the best live show of all time,” reads a sign outside Manhattan’s Hudson Theater, where David Byrne’s American Utopia is staging a limited New York run until February 16. The quote was in fact NME’s response to the former Talking Heads frontman’s staggering live show when it came to Oxford in 2018. Playful as ever, he cribbed it for the title of a live EP of the show.
And it was phenomenal. The art-pop icon seemed re-energised with his 2017 album of the same name. He sought to bring that to his live performances, where his 12-strong band marched, wiggled, smashed, strummed and screamed in a genuinely-unique performance of songs both old and new. It became a festival hit, and even took in arenas in the UK – making for some of his biggest shows ever. It was an unmissable chance to see the polymath continue to challenge not just himself, but what a live performance could do in an age of ever-evolving gig experiences.
There was, however, a slight issue. As the show gained traction due to hyped up and hyperbolic reviews (whoops), the venues got bigger. Inevitably the wonder of seeing such a tightly choreographed show up close became just that bit tougher. The urge to jump on stage and join the dapper conga line with your pint became an even-bigger pipe dream. The very human message became secondary to the spectacle.
But you sense that Byrne always knew where a show like this could end up: on Broadway. It’s a live concert, but unlike many live shows it has a narrative beyond the simple ‘artist plays songs, fans cheer, we all go home’. The songs featured in American Utopia are forthright pleas and musings on a country that might one day build a better home for everyone in it. That kind of connection can only work in the most intimate of settings.
That’s how one of America’s most-beloved songwriters ended up in the glitz and glamour of NYC’s theatre district – a far-cry from his grimy beginnings at CBGBs, the iconic punk venue on the Bowery where he cut his teeth.
Much like he did on this show’s world tour, Byrne never forgets his roots. Over half of tonight’s setlist – which rarely changes night-to-night – is comprised of songs from the Talking Heads back catalogue. There’s the anxiety-ridden ‘Once In A Lifetime’, the life-affirming ‘This Must Be The Place (Naive Melody)’ as well as songs that were originally made with tightness in mind (‘I Zimbra’, ‘Don’t Worry About The Government’) but with his crew explode into a spectacular showtunes. The show’s closing track, 1985’s ‘Road To Nowhere’ is a spectacular ending, convincing enough to make everyone in the theatre follow Byrne back into his wonderful dream.
Those songs are worth the admission price alone, but you’re likely to find just as much joy and a coherent message – or incoherent, depends how he’s feeling – in just about everything else. For ‘Here’ he picks up a prop-brain, analysing our involuntary responses to emotions and events like a funky anthropologist, and it becomes a musing for the show, which he revisits in brief monologues. During a cover of Janelle Monae’s ‘Hell You Talmbout’ and ‘Bullet’ the show is fuelled by outrage and sadness – no American Utopia could ever be claimed where gun violence and institutional racism can cost lives of young black men on such a routine basis. In the surroundings of one of Broadway’s most wonderful theatres, these songs and messages are a sobering reality of what America is, and likely always will be.
The lead single from the solo album that inspired the show makes for the night’s most powerful moment. ‘Everybody’s Coming To My House’, he explains, is a song fuelled by the anxiety of a party getting out of hand. It’s as witty as it is catchy, with a few classic Byrne-isms thrown in for good measure (“We’re only tourists in this life, only tourists but the view is nice”) – but when he saw it performed by a teenage choir from Detroit, it became an inclusive anthem that flips fear into joy, celebrating mankind’s differences and what we can learn from each other.
When the 12-piece band hammer out their version, the show’s core question of the America that exists, and the America that could exist, are in the balance. We know which one we’d rather live in.
David Byrne’s American Utopia ends on Broadway on February 16, 2020