David Byrne – American Utopia Concert – This Must Be The Place

I suspect David Byrne would not be averse to the sobriquet as the funkiest nerd musician. Based on his recent show in San Diego, he deserves the moniker.

This Must Be The Place

Byrne has been pushing the edge of the envelope since he and the Talking Heads burst on the scene four decades ago. The band quickly accelerated out of the punk / new wave confines (if they were ever really therein) and explored multi cultural themes with extraordinary aplomb. With increasing and satisfying critical and popular acclaim, the band broke up just about near its height, thereby preserving its mystique. Band members splintered, with varying degrees of success.

Byrne’s solo career quickly expanded beyond the music-centric to include book and essay writing. (I include his prescient 2014 article about streaming in my college class about media, technology and the law). Byrne collaborated on Robert Wilson’s epic play The CIVIL warS by providing quirky interstitial elements called Knee Plays. I was fortunate to see his semi-interactive musical Here Lies Love on Broadway, a fascinating disco interpretation about Imelda Marcos. I once caught up with Byrne in a Town Hall meeting in San Francisco, where he moderated a panel about biking in the city after presenting his Powerpoint concerning biking in global locations. His memories thereof are captured cleverly in his book The Bicycle Diaries. His hugely insightful book How Music Works was available at the merch table the other night; I imagine he sold as many books as T-shirts.

All in, Byrne is not your average rock star.

His current album American Utopia includes collaborations with longtime sparring partner Brian Eno. The songs are observations on the dichotomy between the concept of the United States as a utopia and the current reality. The eponymous tour is a jaw-dropping spectacle. Twelve musicians, each attired in similar grey suits are untethered. All are shoeless, the only thing touching the stage are 24 bare feet. Half of the musicians are drummers, and all the musicians move about the stage in precise choreography. This is an obvious influence from Byrne’s recent work on a documentary about drum corps and color guards, called Contemporary Color.

Byrne says the current stage production is his most ambitious since the Talking Heads tour that birthed the groundbreaking Stop Making Sense film. I concur; it stretches past his last stop in town, which featured St Vincent and only a brass band. The current set list is a generous dollop of classic Talking Heads tracks, solo work and cuts from the new album. The third song of the evening “I Zimbra,” from the 1979 Talking Heads album signaled Byrne was going deep. Perhaps the best pairing of songs I have seen all year was when he followed the new single “Everyone’s Coming To My House” with “This Must Be the Place.” The linkage of the recent buoyant song with the latter’s “Naive Melody” about home was thrilling.

Byrne then tore into a stunning version of “Once in a Lifetime” and inevitably I murmured ‘same as it ever was’ as I contemplated his wonderfully eclectic artistic mindset.

After some early dates last month, Byrne is currently bouncing around multiple dates in the Southwest, bookended by Coachella appearances. His mammoth world tour continues into August. How he will maintain the energy across these dates is a testament to his perseverance.

If this is how music works, play on.

(Concert photos by Roger Froelich)

Brad Auerbach has been a journalist and editor covering the media, entertainment, travel and technology scene for many years. He has written for Forbes, Time Out London, SPIN, Village Voice, LA Weekly and early in his career won a New York State College Journalism Award.