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David Byrne

David Byrne’s American Utopia, February 3rd, 2022

Feb 04, 2022 Photography by Joshua Mellin
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American Utopia opens with David Byrne sitting at a table, clutching a brain. For the majority of artists, this image would be a bit too on the nose. But for Byrne, it worked. After all, from the 1070s, to the early 1990s he was known as the frontman of The Talking Heads, a man in an oversized suit who could nail a hypnotic blend of pop, rock, punk, and Afrobeat. His jittery anthems like “Psycho Killer,” “Burning Down the House,” and “Once in a Lifetime,” defined a generation of anxiety. Maybe it’s not a stretch to believe that in a time also marked by anxiety, he’d be down to let us inside of his brain—or that the thematic through line of neutral connections we have as children fading over time would hit so hard.

The Broadway show, slated to run through April 3 at St. James Theatre is certainly a unique choice for the institution. (“The show about the man in the half mask is across the street” Byrne quipped after the opening song, acknowledging how far American Utopia strays from traditional Broadway productions.) Preformed on a stage only marked by a silver curtain, it’s up to Byrne and his twelve-piece band to fill the space, which they do through near constant movement, clever light tricks, and occasionally positioning Byrne like a man-sized puppet.

The dynamic nature of American Utopia cannot be undersold. As Byrne points out early into the show, humans like looking at humans, more than a bicycle, or even a bag of potato chips. Yes, it’s another statement that with his saccharine-free intonation, only Byrne is qualified to deliver. But cheesy as it sounds, but after watching Byrne’s band dance, pose, and strut like a Second Line funeral performed by art geeks, it’s hard not to agree. Given their workload, it makes sense he sourced musicians and dancers from around the world capable enough to fulfill his vision. (And why Spike Lee signed up to direct the concert film.)

But for all the show’s joys, perhaps the real thrill comes from watching Byrne repurpose his old material in such a dynamic way. Yes, the Talking Heads are an indelible part of pop culture. But that doesn’t mean their pearls of wisdom aren’t still applicable to us now. And if Byrne can gleefully rewrite the past, who knows—maybe a future utopia is also within our reach.


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