By Damon Mazer
Broadway was an odd place to see David Byrne. When I listen
to Talking Heads, I picture a little punk club or something
of that ilk, not an exquisite theater right off Times Square.
Byrne didn’t fit in, but he stood out. In the bland,
repetitive world of Broadway shows, “American Utopia”
was a breath of fresh air. It was truly unpredictable, and
even without the connection to Byrne and his old group,
I think it would still receive the praise it’s gotten.
It’s a visual marvel and one of the most emotionally
potent concerts out there.
Having been disappointed in missing the show when it first
toured in 2018, I fought tooth and nail to find tickets,
and barely succeeded.
The most significant aspects of the show were the staging
and the band themselves. Everything was a flat grey, from
the mat on the floor, to the identical suits the band was
wearing and the shimmering drapery that surrounded the stage.
The band was unplugged, but not in the acoustic sense. Everyone
was mic’d, but there were no wires or amps anywhere
on stage. The authenticity of the performance was apparently
a source of contention between Byrne and some music journalists
when the band first toured. All the music was live, and
the band took the opportunity to prove it, building up “Born
Under Punches” piece by piece as Byrne introduced
The show was surprisingly similar to a marching band performance.
The keyboardist and percussionists carried their instruments
on chest harnesses, performing with an astounding level
of agility, I might add. I can barely rock back and forth
with a guitar, let alone do the jumping, running, and dancing
these musicians took part in, barefoot, and apparently unburdened
by their equipment. The band and Byrne often moved into
what we would call “sets” in marching band,
or specific formations on stage, both static and dynamic,
making my balcony seats more than worth it. These “sets”
also worked in tandem with the show’s lighting, which
was simple, but mesmerizing. A notable example is during
“Blind”, when a flood light was placed center
stage, casting a towering shadow of Byrne on the backdrop,
along with smaller shadows of the rest of the band dancing
David Byrne himself was effortlessly endearing. He was very
talkative, stopping every few songs to deliver short, but
insightful monologues about his music, the show and politics.
Unlike a number of musicians, these monologues didn’t
feel indulgent. He didn’t spend too much time describing
the meaning and background of the show, simply stating that
it was “about you and us”. There was something
about the way he spoke. It felt friendly, like he was happy
to see us all, which drew me into the show more.
Of course, the music was excellent. The set consisted of
both Talking Heads classics and a satisfying selection of
tracks from David Byrne’s solo endeavors, including
a beautiful rendition of “Glass, Concrete & Stone”,
a personal favorite. The nature of the show meant that most
of these songs couldn’t be played with their original
instrumentation, which wasn’t a negative at all. About
half of the band were percussionists and every member sang
backup vocals, so everything felt weightier, especially
the Talking Heads tracks. “I, Zimbra” hit like
a train. I’ve listened to “Once In A Lifetime”
and “Road to Nowhere” hundreds of times in my
life, but they were more impactful than ever, and I think
the crowd shared that sentiment, as they couldn’t
help but get up and dance as much as they could, despite
how tight seating was.
A surprising inclusion was the autobiographical “I
Should Watch TV”, the only track in the set from “Love
This Giant”, Byrne’s collaborative record with
St. Vincent. Not only is it one of Byrne’s best, it
had the most striking visuals of any track in the set. It
encapsulates what makes the show work so well. Byrne stood
at one end of the stage, with a single, powerful blue light
being cast from behind the backdrop, to simulate a lonely,
dark night sat in front of the T.V. The rest of the band
spent the song slowly encroaching towards him; a blunt,
yet effective representation of the crushing isolation a
life in front of a screen can bring.
All of the “How did he get here?” jokes people
have been throwing around aside, “American Utopia”
feels like the culmination of Byrne’s career up to
this point and a testament to his incredible knowledge in
the not so simple art of putting on a great show.
"American Utopia" runs through Feb. 16 at
The Hudson Theater in Manhattan. For ticket info, visit