It’s been tentatively called the “most ambitious and impressive live show of all time” by NME and a “reinvention of the rock concert” by The Atlantic. David Byrne’s 2018 live show (in support of his recent solo album, American Utopia) has been one of the most talked about musical events of the year, and after months of unbearable anticipation, the legendary Talking Heads frontman finally graced Sydney’s ICC Theatre on the night of Tuesday the 20th of November.
The show began with a stellar performance from New Zealand superstar Kimbra, whose set predominantly consisted of newer material, with older songs such as ‘Settle Down’ and ‘Somebody That I Used to Know’ (which were merged into a surprisingly fitting medley) given a more synthetic and ethereal revamping to match the tone of her 2018 album, Primal Heart. To support such a beloved musical figure is no easy task, but the singer matched the gigantic sound of her instrumentals with impeccable vocals and incredible vigour, making for an enthralling start to the night.
Byrne began his set in typical bizarre fashion sitting at a table, holding a model of a brain as he sang ‘Here’, the closer from American Utopia. Throughout the song, he was slowly joined by the 11 members of his backing band, starting with backup vocalists/dancers Chris Giarmo and Tendayi Kuumba. By the following song, the entire 12-piece band (including Byrne) was in full effect – all barefoot, all sporting matching grey suits, and all constantly moving. In addition to Byrne, Giarmo and Kuumba, the band consisted of six percussionists (Gustavo Di Dalva, Daniel Freedman, Aaron Johnston, Tim Keiper, Mauro Refosco, Davi Vieira); as well as guitarist Angie Swan, bassist Bobby Wooten and keyboardist Karl Mansfield, who all performed wireless.
Photo by Felix Bredhauer
The performance was anything but your average gig. Theatre and performance art were incorporated to create an entirely different universe on stage, which was equal parts bizarre and welcoming. The songs felt like little worlds within that universe, with unique choreography from Annie-B Parson being used for each number. Some songs had a more prominent use of staging than others, such as ‘I Should Watch TV’ off Byrne’s 2013 collaborative album with St. Vincent, throughout which the band stood in rows and edged towards him. In ‘Bullet’, the band circled around the edges of the stage while Byrne stood in its center holding onto a pole lamp. Other songs such as ‘Everybody’s Coming to My House’ and ‘I Zimbra’ were exuberant dance parties. Seeing a group of musicians playing their instruments masterfully while meticulously following choreography was nothing short of mind-blowing.
The show’s lighting also worked brilliantly to its advantage. One of the most engaging moments of the show occurred following the Talking Heads fan favorite ‘Born Under Punches (The Heat Goes On)’ – after a blackout, the lights came back on to reveal the full cast (bar Mansfield) lying on the ground lifelessly as the intro to ‘I Dance Like This’ played. The intensity only grew from there, with strobe lighting used during the song’s final chorus. A single upwards-pointing light at the front of the stage illuminated the band for ‘Blind’, enlarging Byrne’s shadow to an almost comical size. It’s rare that the technical aspects of a show are simple enough to not come across as overblown and gimmicky yet still so impressive and eccentric.
Of course, none of the more theatrical elements would matter if the music itself wasn’t enjoyable, which it undoubtedly was. Though the setlist spanned almost 40 years’ worth of material, it still felt incredibly musically cohesive, with the expanded rhythm section emphasising the strong Afrobeat influences throughout Byrne’s work and heightening the energy of the songs significantly. Classics like ‘This Must Be the Place (Naïve Melody)’ and ‘Once in a Lifetime’ sounded every bit as electrifying as their recorded versions, if not more so. Such a feat could not be achieved by a band any less tight or perfectly mixed than the one on stage. Though some got more time to shine than others (Swan’s guitar solo during ‘The Great Curve’ was a highlight), each player felt like a necessary and irreplaceable cog in the machine. The vocal harmonies provided by Giarmo and Kuumba (as well as Swan and Wooten at times) were mesmerising, especially when isolated (hearing ‘Road to Nowhere’ kick off at the start of the first encore was exhilarating to say the least).
The concert was full of bold choices, but perhaps none more so than the decision to end the night with a cover of Janelle Monáe’s ‘Hell You Talmbout’, a protest song which recalls African-American people who have been killed during various instances of violence (namely police brutality) and implores the audience to say their names. Byrne had a catalogue of crowd-pleasers that he could have ended with, but none would have been as powerful or stirring as Monáe’s anthem. The subject of the song may be an American-based one, but the passion with which the song was delivered highlighted just how pressing and relevant injustices such as the ones brought up in the lyrics are, regardless of geography.
Ultimately, the most admirable quality of the show was how intimate it felt, despite the several-thousand-seat-capacity of the venue. Byrne’s between-song banter was entirely sincere and showed an understated yet clear passion for his work. He and his team seemed genuinely humbled just to be on that stage, and even more so to receive the rapturous applause that they did. Their performances were filled with immeasurable, tangible and infectious joy. The pure ecstasy that this show created really can’t be understated.
At this point in his career, David could easily hop from city to city playing greatest hits shows with your average rock band setup, and it would probably still sound great (though it would certainly be out of character, given his feelings on nostalgia). Instead, the singer has chosen to reinvent not just himself, but the modern live show with it. The show was a testament to the creativity and craftsmanship of Byrne and his entire team, and a celebration of both music and performance.