By: Tyler Mandell
I went to see David Byrne’s American Utopia at the St. James Theatre in New York as a present for my 19th birthday. (It eventually became both my birthday *and* Christmas present due to the amount of expenses for it.) I’ve always been a huge fan of not just Talking Heads, but David Byrne himself in terms of his solo career and him as a person. It’s hard not to be intrigued by the guy when it comes to his work, such as his wild and energetic performance in the legendary concert film Stop Making Sense, his overtly quirky yet all-knowing 1986 satirical comedy film True Stories, and his popular Instagram account known for bizarrely funny and vague images and captions. Coming into the show, I was excited just to see one of my heroes in person, and I knew I’d be satisfied with any result that occurred.
And what I got was completely worth the price of the tickets, amount of time spent traveling by train to NY, and more.
For those who haven’t looked into it much, American Utopia seems like it would only be a concert that happens to be performed on a Broadway stage, but it’s significantly more than that. It features David Byrne and a large, incredible backing band moving freely around the stage with endlessly fun choreography. In between some of the song, Byrne speaks about personal experiences, the pandemic, and change – almost like a TED Talk. It’s very compelling and Byrne is a wonderful speaker. Plus, it adds to the show’s message and feel of a utopia quite well. A lot of it relates to messages that have always been present in his work, such as social anxiety and understanding human interactions.
There are 21 songs performed, with 9 of them being Talking Heads songs, including a few classics like Once in a Lifetime and Burning Down the House. Not to say this would alienate anyone only familiar with the Heads songs, as many of the songs from Byrne’s solo career and collaborations are just as joyous and funky as his earlier band’s songs. The choreography and rhythm from all the backing musicians (lots of percussionists, as well as some guitars and synthesizers) makes every song enjoyable, and the show never at all feel its length of 100 minutes.
The show ends on a somber yet uplifting note, with a cover of Janelle Monae’s Hell You Talmbout that pays tribute to recent victims of police brutality, an a capella version of Byrne and Brian Eno’s song One Fine Day, and then an encore of Road to Nowhere. Despite the dark themes of injustice and death prevalent in all these songs, Byrne and company stand hopeful and optimistic for a better world where we can all come together as one. The show is powerful in its ability to blend up-tempo pop music with biting political statements and is worth watching for anyone who loves Talking Heads, David Byrne, or just wants to see one of the most inventive concert performances of our time.
The filmed version of the show by Spike Lee on HBO Max and the recorded studio album are all great and worth looking into as well, but nothing is more breathtaking seeing the show live in person.