American Utopia: David Byrne at Fox Theatre
Written By | Luke Usry
Everybody’s coming to David’s house. In fact, they’re already here.
On October 02, 2018, that house is Atlanta’s Fabulous Fox Theatre. The scintillating 1920’s-era atmospheric movie palace towers around me like an glorious, encapsulating monument to Moorish maximalism. Standing against the wall at stage left, chatting with my new usher friends Pam and Kathy and staring out at over 4,000 faces beneath that indigo sky, I can’t help but marvel at all the beauty surrounding me. Sweeping archways, towering minarets, and intricate, geometric mosaics abound in a kaleidoscopic amalgamation of Islamic and Egyptian architecture illuminated by the enchanted glow of dozens of hanging lamps and glistening stars.
During the twenty five minute interval since the opening act, New England-based art pop extraordinaires Tune-Yards, left the stage after an extremely engaging and satisfying set, the already substantial crowd has filled out to a near sell-out capacity. Amidst the melodic chirping of songbirds courtesy of Mighty Mo, the Fox’s enormous theater organ, the murmur of anticipatory chatter builds at slow, steady intervals.
That is, until the house lights drop.
There’s always the same half second pause between the sudden fall of darkness and the chorus of cheers that it prompts from an audience, presumably the amount of time it takes the human brain to register the significance of the visual stimuli and instruct the diaphragm to fill the lungs with air. I have no clue which part of the brain would play host to such activity, but as soon as David Byrne appears onstage, it becomes apparent that he might have a suggestion or two.
The curtain parts, revealing Byrne seated behind a folding table at center stage.
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Barefooted and dressed in a cloud grey suit, he stares at a life size model of the human brain as, backstage, the band begins playing the intro to “Here,” the closing song from the tour’s namesake “American Utopia” album.
“Here is a region,” he croons in his trademark timber as he lifts the brain alongside his own head. “…of abundant detail.” Rising slowly to his feet, gazing out at the audience, he continues. “Here is a region…that is seldom used.” Stepping toward the audience, gesticulating over different sections of the model with deliberate, nuanced waves of his hand, he is soon joined by his dancers and twelve piece juggernaut of a band.
And so begins one of the most compelling and artistically inspired concerts I have ever seen. In truth, it’s a grave misuse of the English language to describe the performance that unfolds in front of me over the next two hours as a “concert.” The American Utopia live show is, at its core, a piece of performance art. Meticulously choreographed, deftly executed, and profoundly compelling both musically and visually, it is an experience overflowing with the idiosyncratic creative genius that has been synonymous with the name “David Byrne” since he emerged in the late 1970’s as a member of the pioneering new wave group Talking Heads.
Anchored by songs from what is arguably Byrne’s strongest solo record to date, the setlist sets up a tour-de-force musical agenda for the evening rounded out by a generous helping of Talking Heads material including such fan favorites as “Once in a Lifetime,” “Burning Down the House,” “Blind,” “This Must be the Place,” and, my own personal favorite, the exuberantly polyrhythmic “I Zimbra.”
One of the things I admire most about David Byrne is his ability to use music to convey a sense of motion, both in terms of physicality and cognition. There are many artists that can make me think, and even more that can make me dance. But I’ve never encountered one who can make me do both at the same time like David Byrne. Perpetually dynamic in every aspect, everything from the microphones
to the snare drum is entirely mobile, the show is an ever evolving display of musicianship mesmerizing aesthetics. The musicians, clad in suits identical to Byrne’s, take on the collective form of something much more closely resembling a marching band than anything close to what you would expect to see on a stage. Employing equal parts drama, choreography, and musical prowess, American Utopia is a celebration not only of the music of David Byrne and Talking Heads but of the power of music of tear down the barriers that we build up between ourselves and inspire us to move together in the exhilarating synchronicity of our shared human experience, if only for a few cherished moments.
Waving goodbye to my new friends, I leave the hypnotic beauty of the Fox Theatre’s interior behind and wander back out into the Atlanta nightscape. Glancing back at that the marquee that hovers like a blinking UFO over the sidewalk, I thought of this article and ponder the question: How can I best describe the thesis American Utopia? What’s the elevator pitch? Like most great works of art, this one is best allowed to speak for itself:
“Every day is a miracle
Every day is an unpaid bill
You’ve got to sing for your supper
Love one another”
It’s a message we’d all do well to remember.