There are few touring artists these days who can play multiple venues in the same metropolitan region. That is sometimes due to contractual limitations from the first venue booked not wanting competition from other venues. But when you have a prestigious artist like David Byrne who can sell out multiple venues, then fans get more options, and everyone wins. The former ringleader of the Talking Heads played smaller venues in San Jose, Oakland, and Sacramento in the preceding week, building up to tonight’s performance at the larger Bill Graham Civic Auditorium here in San Francisco on this fine Wednesday evening.
The American Utopia Tour finds Byrne exploring songs from his new album of the same title, along with a healthy serving of Talking Heads classics to make this one of the most anticipated tours of the year. Few “new wave” artists have continued to impact the musical landscape like the Talking Heads have, with their vibrant sound that mixed New York punk, funk, art rock, and world music and that continues to influence a wide cross-section of musicians and music fans. Still one of the boldest artists in the music world, both the new album and tour find Byrne exploring the concept that music can potentially help influence society in a more positive direction.
“The title is not so much about a utopia, as it is about our longing, frustration, aspirations, fears, hopes regarding what could be, what is possible. How and what could we be. Surely, we ask ourselves; it doesn’t have to be like this. There is a longing for possibility — and I have a feeling that is what these songs touch on,” Byrne explains at his website. “America—or to be correct the United States—was founded as a Utopian Experiment. Though it never did succeed in all its aims, enough were realized in the brief history to give hope to many. Now it seems we are seeing that hope, those possibilities, be withdrawn. The project seems on the verge of complete and utter failure. So, naturally, we all now ask ourselves—was it too much to ask? Are we wrong about how humans can be? Is there another way? Can we start over?”
“I am as mystified as any of us—I have no prescriptions or sure-fire answers—but I sense that I am not the only one asking, wondering and still willing to hold on to some tiny bit of hope, still willing to not succumb entirely to despair or cynicism. It’s not easy, but music helps,” Byrne concludes, citing one of the deeper truths of modern society for serious music fans.
Many music fans don’t care to be confronted with such questions about society when they’re out on the town looking for a good time, but chaotic times such as this foul year of 2018 call for increased socio-political participation from both the artistic community and the public at large. Byrne, therefore, provides a noble service with this tour. When the lights go down, it becomes immediately apparent that this will be no ordinary show. There’s no amps on stage, no drum kit, no microphones. Byrne and his team of 11 musicians all play wireless – guitar, bass, keys, horns and six percussionists that feel like a section from a college marching band. The format conjures a festive vibe not unlike when a team of drummers from a college marching band goes out into a football stadium during a game to help fire up the home crowd. This vibe is further enhanced by how all the musicians are wearing the same matching grey suits.
The Talking Heads’ “Slippery People” is an early highlight with the band’s polyrhythmic percussion setting the tone for a groovy evening. The new “Dog’s Mind” features Byrne going deeper with the lyrics as he opens the ambient number singing, “The judge was all hungover / When the president took the stand / So he didn’t really notice / When things got out of hand.” When the song ends, he says “Maybe someday we can stand together” and calls for every single person in attendance to vote in the critical midterm elections in November where Americans will have a chance to take control of Congress away from extremist Republicans. “If you don’t vote, we’ll take your driver’s licenses,” Byrne warns with a chuckle.
The uplifting “This Must Be the Place (Naive Melody)” launches the show into full-on dance party mode, as the balcony aisles are suddenly filled with ecstatic dancers who can no longer confine themselves to their seats. The set surges higher still with the electrifying “Once in a Lifetime” from the Talking Heads’ classic 1980 Remain in Light album, one of those rare ’80s hits that’s aged like a fine wine and become even more meaningful as the years slide by. One of the unique hit songs in pop music history for both its genre-blending music and existential lyrical pondering, the song conjures a sense of a spiritual revival here.
“Doing the Right Thing” invokes more of the socially conscious vibe from the new album with Byrne singing, “We’re all the same / And the world won’t end / It will just change its name / Now give me the bat / Give me the ball / This is my job / Let’s get involved…” The Remain in Light opener “Born Under Punches” is clearly another fan favorite, with the crowd grooving out while the band delivers the expertly layered African-style percussion as Byrne sings of alienated emotions similar to those on “Once in a Lifetime”. The new “Every Day is a Miracle” and the older hit “Like Humans Do” from 2001’s Look Into the Eyeball album both invoke a joyous vibe, with the 8,500 attendees reveling in a collective consciousness that feels good. Byrne keeps it going by adding a theatrical vibe on the groovy “Blind” as he plays guitar while spotlights cast huge shadows of the band members on the back screen for a truly larger than life effect.
“Burning Down the House” concludes the set in climactic fashion, with a surge of energy flowing through the congregation as the funky groove launches the show into top gear once more. Byrne has still saved some special treats for the encore segment, however, starting with “Dancing Together”. Byrne introduces the song as one he wrote about Imelda Marcos, the former first lady of the Philippines known for her extravagant lifestyle. He also notes some birds of a feather by pointing out that Donald Trump’s convicted former campaign manager Paul Manafort had worked for her husband, the greedy dictator Ferdinand Marcos.
The groovy number originally featuring collaborations with Fatboy Slim and the late great Sharon Jones keeps the dance party going and sets the stage for the evening’s hottest jam in the form of “The Great Curve”. The scintillating song from Remain in Light demonstrates the full rock power of the Talking Heads when they wanted to crank up the guitars, and this jam provides a glorious climax to the show with Byrne singing of “a world of light” that opens up as a woman who is part human and part divine “defines the possibilities”.
“The Great Curve” seems to pay tribute to the spiritual power of such groovy music and lead guitarist Angie Swan delivers a face melting solo to drive the point home as the audience revels in the raucous jam. At a time when both political revolution and great music that brings people together for a higher spiritual revolution are both needed more than ever, David Byrne is delivering the goods like few others can or will.