David Byrne, erstwhile singer and songwriter of Talking Heads, is touring the world with his new album American Utopia. Unlike some bands I could mention*, his world tour includes Australia and New Zealand. Not only that, by New Zealand he means “other cities as well as Auckland”! Yes, he’s playing Wellington. It would be churlish not to go and see him.
First up was support act, Kimbra. I’m not really aware of Kimbra other than as a name, but she is apparently quite successful, in a modern way with the young folks. She played eight songs, including some from her new album. I’m not rushing out to buy it on the strength of this performance.
Now, I know some Talking Heads songs from way back in the 80s, but since they dissolved in 1991, I haven’t really been following what David Byrne has been up to. But, as you’d expect, he’s been busy. Not just musically, but also in film, writing, collaborating (notably with Brian Eno), and musicals. American Utopia is, however, his first solo release in nigh on 14 years.
I’ve never been to a Talking Heads/David Byrne show before, so I don’t know if what he did was normal. I was expecting him to sing songs and have a band. And he did, it was just the way that he did it that was different. You see, in a “normal” gig, the members of the band play their instruments, usually tied to one spot by a guitar lead or other electrical connection – especially the drummer, who you expect to sit behind a set of drums. This was manifestly not the case here. All the musicians were mobile. There wasn’t a lead in sight, all the instruments were connected wirelessly. And they sang, and danced, whilst playing their instruments, in a highly choreographed way.
“But wait!” I hear you cry. “How did the drummer manage to dance around, with a huge drum kit?” Well, they’d come up with a solution to that. Instead of one drummer, there were five (and sometimes six – one of the band was a multi-instrumentalist), and they each had one, sometimes two, items of percussion to strike. Between them, they made up a drum kit, and were able to march and dance around to their heart’s content.
Which is what they did. As I mentioned, this was a very choreographed show, and as well as Byrne himself, there were two backing singers/dancers, a keyboard player, bass, guitar, and one general purpose musician, who swapped instruments as needed – sometimes additional guitar, sometimes additional percussion. Naturally, this set-up freed them up to do all kinds of exciting things.
Did I mention what they were wearing? They were all kitted out in matching grey suits. And all barefoot, as there was a lot of dancing to be done. The lighting, too, broke with traditional ideas of what lighting at a gig is – for the first six or so songs they played under bright white lights only, before introducing any kind of colour into the mix. The set list was a mixture of old and new – some Talking Heads in there, but not necessarily ones that I recognised, until we reached the culmination of the show, when they strung together Blind, Burning Down The House, and Road To Nowhere. A lot of the set was from the new album, which I have now ordered and am awaiting arrival.
So that was David Byrne. Probably the best gig I’ve been to for a number of years. It’s well worth checking out if you get the chance!
* Yes, Duran Duran, I’m talking about YOU.