Last time that I saw the legendary Talking Heads was over thirty years ago at London’s Hammersmith Palais. It was the ‘Remain In Light’ tour, a landmark album for the band with the creative production of Brian Eno and live with Bernie Worrell from Funkadelic augmenting the line-up. So the glowing five-star international reviews for David Byrne’s ‘American Utopia’ tour 2018 meant there was genuine and palpable anticipation surging through the 4,000-strong audience packed into the Brighton Centre this week.
The set opened with a vast empty stage, only a small table and chair with a grey-haired casually suited Byrne seated and singing to a plastic brain which he held aloft. He looked like the coolest science teacher explaining its merits, albeit barefoot and to a much more appreciative adult education class. He was joined onstage by similarly attired backing vocalists Chris Giarmo and Tendayi Kuumba who we quickly realised, along with the rest of the 11-piece band, were agile in their dual role as musicians and dancers. It was the realisation that with Annie-B Parson’s sophisticated and at times elaborate choreography (especially for the backing vocalists) this was far from standard fare. I then remembered the work Byrne did with dancer Twyla Tharp in the eighties, and realised this show has become a logical next step in the imaginative presentation of his eclectic catalogue.
We moved uptempo with ‘Lazy’, the breezy solo club hit that resulted when Byrne guested as vocalist with X Press 2, and this buoyed the crowd with its almost aerobic glee. This was followed by the first Talking Heads gem ‘I Zimbra’ (Fear of Music) when we saw everyone – especially the impressive six-piece percussion section – play and dance a combination of street carnival panache and those joyous college brass bands in the US.
From here on we were treated to almost two hours of frenetic then thoughtful funky reworkings of Talking Heads material and cuts from David Byrne’s prodigious solo material including the current release ‘American Utopia’ which reflects on the dire current US political climate with a sense of hope. The standouts were many but the surreal when released ‘Once In A Lifetime’ crackled with almost evangelical zeal as Byrne flung himself around on-stage… Against giant dancing shadows like a Busby Berkeley musical number, ‘Blind’ was given brassy punch and brought energetic solos from its talented percussionist pool… The opening guitar chords of ‘Burning Down the House’ did exactly what it said on the label… ‘Everybody’s Coming To My House’ exuded an inclusive party feel which Byrne explained was also matched by his band’s origins from all around the world. Personally I loved ‘Born Under Punches’ and ‘The Great Curve’ because ‘Remain in Light’ is one of my favourite albums.
The incredibly talented and tight band were unencumbered by cables and the usual stage furniture so were free to inhabit the space and relish their obvious camaraderie. Their sense of fun was immediately reflected in the audience enthusiasm which elevated this evening to an experience more aligned with modern theatre than Brighton’s bland conference venue.
The show didn’t end with the classic ‘Psycho Killer’ but a more unexpected cover of Janelle Monae’s ‘Hell You Talmbout’, a song whose communally chanted names of people are the grim list of victims who inspired Black Lives Matter, killed in the most dreadful circumstances, and including Trayvon Martin, Sandra Bland and Freddie Gray amongst others. Before the song Byrne suggested the audience google their names if they were unaware who they were. It echoed the themes of ‘American Utopia’ and his involvement in voter registration for the mid-term elections and possibility of change.
This was a triumphant show and one that will be remembered for setting a new benchmark in creativity. I can think of ‘Wire’ at London’s Jeanette Cochrane theatre and Grace Jones’s ‘One Man Show’ at Drury Lane among the few that I can remember that successfully pulled off originality with such aplomb. Now who, I wonder, made those two-piece grey suits?