David Byrne’s ‘American Utopia’ Is Both Revelatory & Foot-Stomping (Review)

David Byrne’s American Utopia
Hudson Theatre

New York, NY
Capacity: 979
Nov. 10, 2019
David Byrne
(Matthew Murphy © 2019)
– And You May Ask Yourself, “Why Am I Here?”
Daniel Freedman, Bobby Wooten III, Chris Giarmo, David Byrne, Tendayi Kuumba, Angie Swan, Stéphane San Juan, and Karl Mansfield perform in “American Utopia.” (From left to right.)

It’s only fitting that David Byrne’s rapturous Broadway show “American Utopia,” something of a loose meditation on remedying human fallibility as well as just a straight-up foot stomping club show, opens with the song “Here,” a track off his 2018 album American Utopia that contemplates the mysterious physiological marvel that is the human brain. This he considers in detached, quasi-scientific terms, while seated before a model of a brain ruminating on regions unused or living on past death.
It’s a startling opening scene, sung softly with complex phrasing and Byrne’s idiosyncratic voice making the musician, now 67, seem incredibly vulnerable. The feeling is accentuated with the production’s extraordinary minimalist stage design, with Byrne holding a plastic cerebrum, appearing Hamlet-like and rendered especially stark in a wash of light. The conversational introduction that follows concerns the hundreds of millions neurological connections a baby’s brain has compared to an adult’s, whose brain pathways drop precipitously as they age and become more rigid as thought patterns emerge.  “Adults get stupider,” Byrne says, ”until they reach a place of stupidity.” It’s the show’s broader mission, then, to stimulate as many new neurological, social and humanitarian connections as possible in the service of smartening up us stupid adults, something especially needed these days.
This he achieves in spades. As a chain-mail curtain rises on three sides to envelop Byrne – perhaps like a cranium – a dozen barefoot and virtuosic musicians, dancers and singers clad in identical grey Nehru-like suits come and go in a myriad of well-choreographed graceful formations courtesy of choreographer Annie-B Parson and production consultant Alex Timbers. (Both Parson and Timbers worked on Byrne’s 2013 Off Broadway play “Here Lies Love,” which was inspired by Imelda Marcos and featured songs by Byrne and Fatboy Slim.) This ebbing and flowing backing band, with synth/keyboard and an array of percussion instruments held aloft with marching band harnesses as well as cordless bass, guitars and head mics, allows for peripatetic wanderings and dance – and is revelatory. 
David Byrne
(Matthew Murphy © 2019) .
– Once In A Lifetime:
Jacquelene Acevedo, David Byrne, Mauro Refosco, Chris Giarmo, Angie Swan, and Bobby Wooten III perform at the Hudson Theatre. (From left to right.)

Yes, of course, there are references to Byrne’s trademark arm chops from Jonathan Demme’s 1984 Talking Heads concert film “Stop Making Sense” and a bit of Mummenschanz-like pretension. But above all else, the movements of the backing band, dancers and singers poignantly and effectively enhance Byrne’s messages for human connection.

The four songs that come early in the set are a gut, heart and hypothalamus punch that transforms the Broadway theater into a foot-stomping show. Taken together, the rhythmic and self-lacerating “Lazy” (off X-Press 2’s 2002 album Muzikizum) into the Talking Heads’ revelatory “This Must Be the Place (Naive Melody)” (off 1983’s Speaking in Tongues) into “I Zimbra” with its synth-afro-beat mash up and absurdist chants (off 1979s Fear of Music) and the funk jam that is “Slippery People” (off Speaking in Tongues) forms one of the most powerful quartets of songs ever played back-to-back on a Broadway stage, or really anywhere else. 
When introducing “I Zimbra,” Byrne mentioned his longtime friend and producer Brian Eno, as well as Dadaist Hugo Ball’s poem “Gadji beri bimba” and played a snippet from an absurdist 40-minute song by Kurt Schneider. The seemingly unlistenable track was written in 1932, which Byrne noted was a time of a great upheaval, economic meltdown, the rise of global fascism and rampant nationalism. Here, absurd nonsense was used to make sense of a senseless world, perhaps explaining why the song still resonates today. 
David Byrne
Matthew Murphy © 2019
– Theatrical Rock:
David Byrne and the company of “American Utopia” rocking out at the Hudson Theatre.

After “Everybody’s Coming To My House,” Byrne referenced his own immigration story, coming from Scotland to dwell in suburban Maryland, as well as those of his diverse band, which includes members from Brazil and France. “We’re all immigrants,” he said. “we couldn’t do it without them.”  With that, he introduced Headcount, the live music event voter registration organization, which was set up in the Hudson Theatre’s lobby. 


Among the many other highlights was the angsty foot-stomper “Once in a Lifetime”; the uptempo “In Between my Toes,” performed from the lip of the stage; the percussive, groove-filled “Born Under Punches (The Heat Goes On)”; a cover of Janelle Monáe’s powerful “Hell You Talmbout,” with its powerful call-and-response shouts to victims of police brutality; the funk jam that is “Blind”; and the gorgeous five-part a cappella harmonies of “One Fine Day,” rebutting any criticisms of Byrne’s actually quite beautiful voice.
Not everything worked. “I Dance Like This,” which alternates between an abrasive, thrash metal refrain and plucked, lullaby-like verses, missed widely, but that may have been the point. 
Throughout “American Utopia,” which Byrne has said is not a sarcastic title, the musician stumped for the need of greater human connectivity.  Whether the innate joy of observing fellow humans, fighting social and political injustice, pointing out the absurdities of everyday life or creating new internal pathways never before made, there are billions of connections yet to be established and that now are so very much needed.
“American Utopia,” which began Oct. 20 at the Hudson Theatre and recently extended its run from Jan. 19 to Feb. 16, 2020, follows the massive success of “Springsteen on Broadway,” which staged 236 shows and grossed $113 million at the nearby Walter Kerr Theater. More recently, Regina Spektor and Morrissey had shorter and acclaimed stints at Broadway’s Lunt-Fontaine Theater. These days “The Great White Way,” as Broadway was once known, is increasingly becoming “The Great Club Way,” as artists continue to lug their guitars and amps from clubs and rock halls to more intimate and upscale theater settings offering artists endless creative production and storytelling possibilities and giving fans titillating experiences — an American utopia indeed.