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  • Writer's pictureTony Harris


I have to confess to being quite excited about an upcoming release which for those of you who already know my predilection for digging around in our communal musical pasts may come as something of a shock. But fear not as ever, I am able to trace its roots back so that we can embark on another vinyl voyage together.

Later this month, HBO will be releasing the film of David Byrne's "American Utopia" the 2019 tour of his album of the same name which had included several Talking Heads classics as well. The film has been directed by Spike Lee.

I sadly was never in a location where I could see the show despite a long run on Broadway but the clips you can investigate make you realise it was clearly something very special. His ensemble bunch of choreographed musicians working with minimal amplification tracking barefoot around the stage was a quite remarkable spectacle.

As the show gained more and more popularity, so the ensemble did the circuit of many of the major chat shows in the US and really managed to capture the spirit of the show; it was part of a larger project, Byrne has been working on called "Reasons To Be Cheerful". Without doubt it is one of the most uplifting set of performances you can see especially within a TV chat show setting.

Exhibit A - a free-for all performance of "Road To Nowhere" with the Roots on Jimmy Fallon's show which you can see HERE.

Byrne has a wide ranging back-catalogue both in his solo work and with his former band but what is remarkable across this whole piece is how he manages to use his musical troupe to switch styles so dramatically and yet never lose the pace or the ability to really raise the roof.

Of course, Talking Heads are much revered now as a hugely innovative band who could change their musical course with Byrne as the provocateur from the sharp angular early works to country flavoured offerings and even very funky workouts. He would develop this even further with some of his solo work - often as soundtracks - with imaginative collaborators such as Brian Eno, Norman Cook and Ryuchi Sakamoto. All intelligent students of sound.

In 2008, he had released his second album with Brian Eno, "Everything That Will Happen Will Happen Today" which they had made together by swapping digital recordings to each other by email. It is a piece that manages to be uplifting and gloomy in equal measure but one of the highlights was the optimistic "One Fine Day" which would feature in the Broadway show.

However, when Byrne guested with Jimmy Kimmel on a New York celebration broadcast, he completely re-engineered the song and created the most wonderful spiritual gospel performance with the Brooklyn Youth Choir.

However, my favourite of his chat show performances is the one he made again with the barefoot theatrical troupe on Stephen Colbert's Late Show of "American Utopia"'s lead single "Everybody's Coming To My House".

It fits the surreal scenario of the TV studio wonderfully and even brings the host into their divertissements. I have to say Colbert pulls this off rather well, keeping into the character of the song with deadpan aplomb. It seems a typically left of centre 'event' enhanced by the familiarity of the location.

Of course, Byrne has always thought carefully about his musical performances and their appearance on celluloid. I am going to exclude the extraordinarily unsettling "True Stories" which was his own 1986 creation.

I really want to talk about the exceptional "Stop Making Sense" which, in my humble opinion, is still the greatest concert film I have ever seen. This was also made by a famous Hollywood storyteller - the director, Jonathan Demme, who would go on to win an Oscar for "The Silence Of The Lambs".

That film was made during the band's promotion of their excellent (and my favourite of their studio albums) "Speaking In Tongues" in late 1983. The whole performance begins with Byrne walking on stage alone with a huge cassette player and guitar he presses play and a rhythm track begins (actually from the mixing desk) and he proceeds to deliver a devastating version of "Psycho Killer".

As the set continues, various members of the band emerge on stage to join the performance until eventually the whole entourage have congregated on stage and a wonderful rhythmically tight performance ensues.

The material from the (then) current album really finds a life of its own with the first ensemble "Burning Down The House" creating a real sense of excitement. This had been their breakthrough hit in the US earlier in the year. There is also a lovely rendition of "This Must Be The Place (Naive Melody)" - a song that manages to be joyous lyrically but sound paradoxically melancholy.

After the suitably odd and bluesy "Swamp", you can find a fine performance also of "Slippery People" which as a result of this, Byrne passed on to revered soul-gospel group, The Staple Singers to record for their album "Turning Point" which became something of an unexpected club hit in the UK. On paper it sounds like a terrible idea but in reality, the sheer vocal power of Mavis Staples makes their recording supersede the original. David Byrne does however play guitar on their version.

And always nice to see a clip from "Soul Train".

You think that would all be wonderful enough and yet the most memorable moment of the entire show is David Byrne coming on his giant suit to perform "Girlfriend Is Better". It was apparently inspired by Japanese Noh theatre but became the powerful marketing key visual of the whole audio-visual enterprise.

What is inescapable is the wonderful narrative that a film-maker can bring to a traditional concert setting that makes an entirely riveting visual experience.

There are probably more visual clips included in this piece than I have ever used before but each one is a visual treat. Byrne understands the power of multi-media more than most artists and correspondingly his and his band's work has always been singled out for its arty intellectual stance - some naysayers think it pretentious.

What should be applauded is their ability to zig where others zag by including styles and references often never previously conceived in that musical context.

Doubly delightful though, is his consideration for the visual presentation of his music - a feast for the eyes as well as the ears and it's been called the best live show performance ever. His choice of film directors whose speciality is not in concert films shows an extra consideration for those in the audience without, as he wants to create a narrative that a lack of proximity might not always make clear.

Will you feel excited to be part of this shared experience?

I think it is fair to say that I have been - even through the chink in the wall that is YouTube. No wonder, I simply cannot wait for this premiere. The trailer can be found HERE.

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